FLASH: William Hague in Beirut: Britain seizing the opportunity to play a larger role in Lebanon and Syria

British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday, 20/02, on a short visit. He is expected to meet with President Michel Slaiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Hague will also meet Energy Minister Gebran Bassil on Thursday morning, and the two will announce the launching of 2-D seismic surveys that will be conducted onshore by British firm Spectrum, which also conducted seismic surveys in Lebanese waters. The visit comes less than a week after the launching of the pre-qualification phase preceding the country’s first licensing round (expected in May 2013), which was attended by several ambassadors,  including the US and UK ambassadors, and signals a firm backing for Lebanese efforts to exploit offshore resources, and a strong interest in being associated in these efforts. British-based Cairn Energy is among the companies that will bid for an exploration license in May. The UK government, and its diplomats in Beirut, are actively and publicly encouraging British companies to be involved in hydrocarbon exploration in Lebanon, and are lobbying Lebanese officials to this end.

Hague will also discuss with his hosts the Burgas bombing and its implications, including adding Hezbollah on the EU’s terror list. Britain seems to be pressing in this direction, but is being met with hesitation from other EU members, knowing that a unanimous decision is required to add Hezbollah – one of the main parties in the current Lebanese government – to the terror list. However, Hague is expected to reaffirm his country’s commitment to Lebanon’s stability, and will announce a number of measures to help the Lebanese government in its quest to protect the country from the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, including help for the Syrian refugees and, more importantly, plans to support the Lebanese army.

Britain seems to be increasingly active on the Lebanese scene, and not only due to its energetic ambassador Tom Fletcher, always looking to engage with Lebanese officials, and the public in general, but also as a result of the regressing role of other countries that have traditionally been influential in Lebanon: The USA (for obvious reasons) but, more surprisingly, France, kept busy by a number of more pressing issues. France, which is represented by Patrice Paoli, an excellent ambassador (though much more discreet than one would have hoped), risks losing more than just lucrative business deals, but may also find its historical role in Lebanon threatened by other countries that are seizing the opportunity and are trying to be more available.

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