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HomeBlogBeirut Explosion: How Canada Can Help Lebanon

Beirut Explosion: How Canada Can Help Lebanon

Image credit: European Union (photographer: Bernard Khalil)

By Pouyan Kimiayjan | IPD Research Associate

Lebanon is an important strategic actor in the Middle East and its decline could instigate further regional instability. Canada must avoid politicizing this humanitarian tragedy, engage in constructive talks with the Lebanese government, and provide practical financial assistance to the Lebanese people.

The tragic August 4th explosion in Beirut—which killed 163 people, injured over 6,000, and initially displaced approximately 300,000—has triggered an unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon. The blast occurred when a suspicious fire ignited a stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which authorities left sitting in a port warehouse for years, despite warnings from officials that the stockpile posed a real danger. Already devastated by years of mismanagement, corruption, external pressure, and the spread of COVID-19, Lebanon will undoubtedly suffer more as the country’s main strategic port was raised to the ground. 

On one hand, Lebanon has one of the world’s largest public debt burdens, which makes it unlikely that the government will be able to afford the estimated $15 billion in damages. While Lebanon has asked for $10 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the organization has rejected its request, demanding fiscal reforms and stronger action on tackling systematic corruption. On the other hand, with the destruction of Lebanon’s only large grain silo, major food shortages will exasperate the humanitarian debacle. In addition, wide-spread protests over years of government incompetence have plunged the country into a political crisis, resulting in the resignation of the Lebanese government. 

Under these turbulent conditions, Lebanon needs immediate international assistance. This disaster could prove to have significant negative humanitarian implications in the long-run, especially for the many refugees residing in Lebanon. In 2019, it was estimated that 1.5 million Syrian refugees are staying in Lebanon, 914,600 of whom are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Thus far, several organizations and states have pledged financial aid, including the European Union, Qatar, France, UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Norway, Belgium, Cyprus, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Brazil. An emergency donor video conference, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, raised nearly $398.7 million Cdn in pledges for immediate humanitarian relief, with the response being coordinated by the United Nations. 

However, this limited financial aid package will fail to accommodate the estimated $15 billion in damages. Canada initially pledged $5 million and later increased its aid to $30 million following the resignation of the Lebanese government. This potentially politicized change of heart undermines our long-term credibility in Lebanon, where more than 10,960 Canadians currently reside. Moreover, in an ill-advised and undiplomatic announcement, the federal government explicitly announced that the initial $5 million will not go to the Lebanese government and will instead be directed towards “trusted” organizations, demanding fiscal and political reforms. 

However, the Lebanese government will be at the forefront of confronting the political and economic ramifications of this tragedy. Currently, the government is unable to finance contracts and subcontracts for reconstruction, and the rebuilding effort will also require major imports of critical equipment and supplies. Excluding the central government in Beirut will only hurt our bilateral relations and most importantly undermine economic and infrastructural rehabilitation in the region.  

In this light, it is strategically vital for Canada to play a more constructive and pragmatic role in preventing a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Primarily, Canada can establish a joint consultation committee with the Lebanese government, closely assessing the needs of the Lebanese people and the ways in which the federal government can provide targeted financial aid. Secondly, Canada can finance a team of Canadian engineers to help with the port’s reconstruction. While third-parties will most likely finance large projects, Canadian experts can play a critical role in consulting reconstruction projects in Beirut. Thirdly, the federal government has the capacity to help the government provide more homeless shelters as thousands remain displaced since the explosion. Renovation and rebuilding of damaged homes will take months (if not years) therefore providing shelters for displaced people will be critical as part of our humanitarian aid package. Fourthly, the federal government must engage the United States and demand a temporary lifting of the Caesars Act, the sanctions regime on Syria, which has deprived Lebanon of much-needed trade with its neighbour. Analysts have long predicted that sanctions against the Syrian government will worsen Lebanon’s economic crisis by triggering illicit trade with Syria. 

At last, Canada can utilize its influence in international organizations, such as the IMF, the World Bank Group, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in order to convince international aid bodies to provide much-needed financial assistance to Lebanon. In parallel, with respect to our experience in advising the Lebanese Ministry of Finance, Canada can send a delegate of economic advisors to help implement fiscal reforms. 

Lebanon is an important strategic actor in the region and its decline can instigate further instability, contributing to a new wave of refugees fleeing the devastated country. Canada must avoid politicizing this humanitarian tragedy, engage in constructive talks with the Lebanese government, and make use of the tools at its disposal to provide practical financial assistance to the Lebanese people. 

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor