Lebanon is rooted in regional geopolitics


Update

Signalling a return to normality since his shock resignation from Saudi Arabia on November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri today urged the country’s public institutions to ration their electricity use, according to leading French-speaking Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour (link in French). Many cities in Lebanon suffer from periodic power shortages.

For the moment, it seems like Lebanon’s leaders are managing to steer the country away from the growing unrest between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Following a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun on November 22, Prime Minister Saad Hariri “suspended” his resignation, saying Aoun asked him to “put it on hold ahead of further consultations”.

Hariri had returned to Lebanon the day before, after spending two weeks – including a weekend in France, where he and part of his family met French President Emmanuel Macron – abroad.

The prime minister’s resignation on Saudi television on November 4 shocked people in Lebanon and set off alarm bells throughout the region. The country has historically been the site of many proxy disputes (see coverage below) and its political system hinges on a delicate balance of power between several rival factions. L’Orient-Le Jour said Hariri’s “mysterious stay in Saudi Arabia provoked fears of a return to chaos in Lebanon.”

Hariri cited fears of an unspecified assassination plot against him and accused Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon’s power sharing government, of sowing chaos throughout the region.

Lebanon’s political establishment, including President Aoun, accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Hariri’s resignation and detaining him. Hariri and the Gulf kingdom deny the claims.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in an increasingly antagonistic regional proxy war over influence in the Arab world, according to Madawi Al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre.

Many experts – including Jonathan Spyer at Foreign Policy magazine; award-winning journalist Mehdi HassanProfessor Mohammed Ayoob writing for American bimonthly international affairs magazine The National Interest; and Al-Rasheed – believe Iran is gaining the upper hand, causing Saudi Arabia to become increasingly assertive.

Earlier

The Lebanese Republic is once again at the center of a geopolitical tussle, this time between regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, that threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of power that holds the multi-confessional country together.

The international turmoil became apparent when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned on November 3 for what seemed like a routine official visit to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. In a move that shocked Lebanese and international observers alike and generated intense speculation, according to The New Yorker, Hariri announced his resignation the next day on Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab television news channel. He remains in Saudi Arabia.

Hariri cited an alleged assassination plot, and he accused Shiite Iran and Hezbollah — arguably Lebanon’s most powerful political and military group — of sowing chaos and confusion across the region. Many Lebanese and regional analysts believe that Hariri’s resignation was forced by the Saudis, according to The New York TimesReuters provided a similar report a week later.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun was outraged during a November 15 press conference.

“Nothing justifies Hariri’s lack of return for 12 days,” he said. “We therefore consider him detained. This is a violation of the Vienna agreements and human rights law.”

Saudi Arabia said Hariri is a free man. In a television interview on November 12, Hariri denied he’s being held and said he would return to Lebanon in a few days.

Aoun says he will not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returns to Lebanon and presents it in person. Zahera Harb, a former Lebanese journalist and now senior lecturer in international journalism at City, University of London, told WikiTribune that Hariri’s resignation is unconstitutional because under Lebanese law, the prime minister must present their resignation to the president personally (link to Lebanese constitution).

What’s at stake

Lebanon, which was torn apart by 15 years of sectarian war fought in the streets of Beirut, still bears the scars of being the battleground of superpower and regional conflicts under the guise of religion.

“It’s never been about a Sunni and Shia divide. It’s all been about geopolitics, geopolitical interests… This whole Shia-Sunni thing is just used as a tool,” Harb told WikiTribune.

For the moment, Lebanese of all political stripes are urging civility and asking Hariri to return. Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Hariri to resign but urged peace and calm among Lebanese a day after the prime minister’s announcement.

The people seem to be heeding that advice, said Lina Hamdan, founding member and Vice-President of the Party of Lebanon, a small political party with no members of parliament in Lebanon.  Hamdan is also a former communication and strategy adviser for the United Nations in Lebanon.

“Lebanese have united for this crisis and they are all asking for the prime minister to come back,” she said in a phone interview with WikiTribune.

But because Lebanon’s government hinges on a delicate religious arrangement and the country has weak institutions, according to intelligence-gathering agency Stratfor, some analysts fear that Hariri’s resignation could disrupt attempts to kickstart Lebanon’s ailing economy and hinder efforts to navigate severe political gridlock, as reported by The Financial Times.

Proxy Lebanon

In their coverage, many international outlets – including The Economist, The Financial Times, Reuters, The New York Times, and The Associated Press – quote Iranian, Saudi, and Lebanese officials’ diametrically opposed accounts to suggest that the events in Lebanon are part of a geopolitical contest happening throughout the region between an expansionist Iran and an increasingly aggressive Saudi Arabia.

Hamdan said Lebanon has a history of being used by other countries as a site for proxy disputes, a fact most recently borne out during the 2006 Lebanon War, a 34-day conflict between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah that ended in a United Nations-brokered ceasefire.

Part of this is due to the republic’s large proportions of Sunnis, Shiite and Christians. The country has been gripped by sectarian violence in the past, most notable during a long and bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990. Muslims make up 54 percent of the country, divided equally into Sunnis and Shiite, and Christians comprise 40 percent of the population.

Lebanese politics reflect this plurality. Under an agreement known as the National Pact, the country’s share of political power is carefully split between the three main religious groups: the prime minister is always a Sunni, the president a Maronite Catholic, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.

The Shiite dominant Iranian leadership and the Sunni Saudi Arabian monarchy each support their respective factions in Lebanon.

The geopolitical roots of Hariri’s resignation

Reuters reported that the Saudis forced the prime minister to resign because of Hariri’s unwillingness to take a tough stance toward Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government.

“What we know is that the Saudis forced him to resign,” Stéphane Lacroix, a Saudi Arabia expert and an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po, Paris, told WikiTribune in a phone interview.

“The Saudis believe that Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah and that Hariri has been providing a Hezbollah-led government with some kind of legitimacy that the Saudis want to withdraw from that government.”

Hezbollah is one of Lebanon’s most important political and military factions. Its popularity and power have been bolstered by its intervention in Syria’s civil war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. (See this story in the FT for more detail).

Lacroix said that by forcing Hariri to resign, the Saudis intended to “expose” the extent of Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese government.

“The end game for the Saudis,” Lacroix said, “is to escalate the crisis with Iran and to force a number of other countries to take a more aggressive approach against Hezbollah in Lebanon,” particularly the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

But Lacroix believes the Saudis’ plan backfired.

“It ended up provoking some kind of national unity in Lebanon against the Saudis,” he said.

To make matters worse for the Saudis, Lacroix believes that pro-Iran factions in Lebanon “seized the opportunity to appear as being the moderates in front of the allegedly radical Saudis.”

Bassem Snaije, a Lebanese investment banker and associate professor at the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po, echoed Lacroix’s words. Having recently returned to France from Lebanon, Snaije told WikiTribune in a phone interview: “There was no real reaction anywhere except to stay calm.”

“Those who are being attacked are backing off from falling into the trap of provocation,” Snaije said.

Emile Hokayem, a regional analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies quoted by The Financial Times, disagrees with Lacroix.  “It is very tempting to say that Saudis wanted to escalate and take the country to the brink of war — but the truth is, this country had already been on a downward slope. Hariri’s government was losing control over its foreign policy and security issues . . . He was serving as a cover for a Hizbollah-dominated government.”

What next?

Two key issues – one geopolitical, the other domestic – seem apparent to analysts.

The first, Lacroix said, is that Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed foreign policy has once more failed to hit home.

“Nobody followed the Saudis in Lebanon,” said Lacroix, citing inaction by the U.S. and the Israelis, and pointing out that French President Emmanuel Macron went to the Saudi capital to try to calm the situation.

“To me, it’s one more crisis that shows the limits of that new, much more proactive or aggressive, Saudi foreign policy,” Lacroix said. “The Saudis depend on a number of allies, at the regional and international level, which are not willing to act as per the Saudis agenda.”

Hamdan agrees. “I don’t see all these powers wanting to ignite another war,” she said.

On the domestic front, one thing is clear, Hamdan said. Hariri must go back to Lebanon so that the country may resume its normal state of affairs. Its citizens want to focus on the upcoming 2018 general elections and on fixing a fragile economy, she said.

“Lebanese want reconciliation, dialogue,” she said, “Most of the factions, if not all of them, they don’t need any confrontation.”

Great reads on the situation in Lebanon

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