by Aurélie Daher
It’s official: Saudi Arabia has declared open war on Lebanese Hezbollah. On March 2, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which gathers the six monarchies of the Arab Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) officially put the Shiite group on its list of terrorist organizations. Three weeks earlier, on February 19, the kingdom suspended a $4 billion grant that it agreed in 2014 to pay to France in exchange for military equipment to be delivered to the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the equivalent of the police. Three days later, Riyadh called on all of its subjects to leave Lebanon. In Beirut, some started to worry about the Saudi deposits at the Central Bank, and rumors of an imminent eviction of Lebanese working in the kingdom started to spread.
The powder keg of Saudi displeasure with Hezbollah had been ready to explode for some time. But the match that finally ignited it was the choice made by the Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gebran Bassil—son in law and political heir of Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Current (FPC), a mainly Christian party allied to Damascus and to Hezbollah—to refrain from joining in the January 11 final declaration of the emergency meeting of the Arab ministers of foreign affairs.
Saudi Arabia complained that Bassil refused to join his peers in officially condemning the mob attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after Riyadh executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent Shiite foe to the Saudi regime, in early January. For his part, Bassil insisted that what bothered him really was the declaration mentioning “Hezbollah’s interference in Bahrain.” Hezbollah interference in Bahraini affairs was never proven in fact, and Hezbollah’s friends in Lebanon have always considered this version to be mere propaganda slander by the anti-Shiite regime in Manama. Undoubtedly, the minister also had another reason for his abstention. The FPC would consider his approval of a text depicting Hezbollah as a destabilizing agent outside its national borders as treasonous toward its strongest ally at home. It would also mean putting Lebanon’s own security at risk.
Of $4 billion in aid previously promised by Riyadh, $3 billion was supposed to go to the Lebanese army to help protect the country’s borders with Syria from the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra firmly entrenched within just a few dozen kilometers on the other side. Both organizations have indeed been tempted to turn Lebanon, or at least a part of it, into the next jihadist emirate in the region. In August 2014, the two groups launched a massive attack against the town of Ersal, in the Bekaa valley next to the Syrian frontier, proving that their capacité de nuisance is not to be taken lightly.
In addition to these $3 billion, the kingdom had granted an extra billion dollars to be disposed of by Saad Hariri personally, so he could distribute it among the forces of law and order as he saw fit. In other words, Riyadh was helping former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s son and heir to be getback in the saddle. After two discouraging years as head of the government (2009-2011) and three years in exile (2011-2014), the younger Hariri, whose popularity has weakened significantly, chose to give $500 million to the army, $400 million to the ISF, and $100 million to the Sûreté Générale. It was an allocation that clearly reflected his clientelist priorities. In Lebanon, the ISF is viewed as having close ties to the Future Current, Hariri’s party, while the Sûreté Générale is a bastion of pro-Syrian sympathy among the state’s institutions.
Contrary to what things may seem, however, Riyadh’s latest decisions are focused less on Hezbollah than on Saad Hariri and Future Current itself, in spite of their both being genuinely pro-Saudi. When the Lebanese government was formed in February 2014 under the leadership of Tammam Salam, a client of Hariri, Hezbollah declined to press for security-related portfolios either for its ministers or political allies. The ministries of defense, interior, and justice were hence left to Sunni officials from the Future Current or its allies in the March 14 Alliance (a coalition united by their opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria). In so doing, Hezbollah intended to force its adversaries to assume responsibility for the government’s anti-terrorist policy and thus protect itself from any political fallout in the event of that policy’s failure. Its restraint was also intended to avoid feeding into the Shiite-versus-Sunni rivalry that has swept across the region and that remains a threat to Lebanon’s own fragile stability.
But in depriving the Lebanese army of the military equipment it badly needs to defend the national territory, the Saudis, in their wisdom, appear to be punishing the March 14 Alliance above all, especially given the white-hot debate in Lebanon about who should be responsible for that task. March 14 has always insisted that the army be the only force to ensure the defense of Lebanon’s borders. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has repeatedly replied that the army lacks the means to do so, and that Hezbollah thus had a necessary part to play in helping the army accomplish that goal, whether against Israel from the South, or Syrian groups from the East.
In this context Riyadh’s decision to withhold Hariri’s security slush fund constitutes an especially serious blow to Hariri and his allies. Already before the Saudi announcement, it was no secret that the Future Current was facing major financial problems. Many of the party’s militants and clients have gone unpaid for some time, in some cases years.
The kingdom is itself under serious budgetary pressure, with a deficit of $87 billion early this year. Still, there is undoubtedly more to it than just financial austerity. This week, Riyadh officially put pressure on one of Hariri’s main companies in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Oger, taking action against some departments of the firm. The Saudi message is clear: Hariri must take action against Hezbollah, quickly and without compromise. The Saudi minister of foreign affairs said it explicitly to a Lebanese official: “Are you with us or against us? You cannot be both.”
Saudi Wilayat al-Faqih in Lebanon
Many observers have stated that what some don’t hesitate to call Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs started roughly a year ago, with King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz’s accession to the throne. A rivalry is widely believed to have developed between the King’s nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who is officially in charge of the war against terrorism, and the King’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman who has gained responsibility for the war in Yemen. Muhammad Bin Salman may well be the reason why the King, more than his predecessors, sees in the Iranian influence in the Middle East a greater threat to the kingdom than that posed by Sunni jihadist radicals. The war against the Houthis in Yemen—and now against the Lebanese Hezbollah—is said to reflect that Saudi understanding of the Kingdom’s priorities.
All the same, the Saudi temptation to act as more than a generous godfather in Lebanese politics is actually not new. So long as Syria served as the country officially appointed by the West to keep unruly Lebanese politicians—and warlords—on a leash (1990-2005), Saudi Arabia mainly acted as a facilitator, reconciler, and mediator, trying its best to reduce the tensions between Damascus and unhappy Lebanese officials. The end of Syrian tutelage after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005—and the accession to power in Beirut of a pro-western coalition—offered Riyadh an opening to exert much greater influence in Lebanese politics. Indeed, the kingdom’s involvement became even more important after the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, which was widely seen as a victory for Hezbollah’s Iranian godfather at a time whenTehran’s nuclear program jumped to the top of the regional foreign policy agenda of both Israel and the US. Earlier in 2006, Israel was actively trying to convince the US to launch a major attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but Washington was hesitating. The failure of the war on Lebanon, that was initially supposed to show a possible modus operandi for a possible move against Tehran, led the Bush Administration to drop the idea of a new military initiative.
The Kingdom’s new power in Lebanon, exercised mainly through the Future Current’s internal dynamics emerged clearly in the summer of 2008. Armed Sunni and Alawi (Shiite) groups had been fighting for some months in Tripoli, the Sunni capital of North Lebanon. The city’s increasingly desperate religious leaders,appealed to then-Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a Hariri client, to intervene politically to halt the violence. Siniora explained in all sincerity that he had more urgent priorities, specifically preparing for the legislative elections that were to be held in June of the following year. He was particularly reluctant to avoid antagonizing Salafi groups that were participating in the fighting and were emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the local political life of the city. As the sectarian clashes intensified, Tripoli’s leaders begged Hezbollah to intervene. After summoning the heads of the various parties to the negotiating table, the Shiite party succeeded in reaching a settlement within 24 hours. The fighting ceased the very same day. Two days later, however, unable to stomach Hezbollah’s achievement, Riyadh prevailed on the Salafi leadership and Saad Hariri to declare the agreement null and void. And while Siniora organized a new negotiation and cease-fire under the Future Current’s chairmanship, it quickly broke down, and fighting resumed.
The Saudi role in Lebanon became particularly clear last June when Wikileaks published more than half a million Saudi diplomatic cables. Whatever lingering doubts about the kind of relationship Riyadh had established with its protégés in Lebanon were dispelled by their contents. March 8, the pro-Syrian coalition led by Hezbollah, could not have been happier. For years, March 14 had repeatedly charged Hezbollah with being an “anti-Lebanese” group due to its acceptance of wilayat al-faqih, a Shiite theocratic concept that requires its adherents to respect and obey Iran’s Supreme Leader and Guide of the Revolution. But the Wikileaks cables showed that Saudi officials expected no less in the way of obedience and loyalty from its clients in Lebanon.
Hariri Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
If anything, it seems that the Future Current is even more tied by its Saudi obligations than Hezbollah in its relation to Iran. As a Lebanese expert explained to me in November 2015: “March 14 has even less room for maneuver, essentially because the Saudis do not trust them. Iran trusts Hezbollah, Tehran feels Hezbollah leaders know how to play the Lebanese game, so it let them take care of it themselves. Saudi Arabia knows that March 14 and the Future Current in particular need it to break the back of the work for them.”
When faced with Riyadh’s anger over the Lebanese foreign minister’s refusal to sign the GCC declaration, the March 14 Sunni leaders rushed to the kingdom’s embassy in Beirut, planning to send a delegation to Riyadh to publicly apologize. The Future Current officials at all levels openly declared their allegiance, Saad Hariri himself explicitly stating that “Loyalty to the Kingdom is loyalty to Lebanon, and offending the Kingdom is offending Lebanon… The withdrawal by the Lebanese diplomacy from the Arab consensus is a sin.”
In spite of these efforts to appease the Saudi leadership, the Future Current finds itself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The kingdom has asked for an official apology by the government and a written declaration affirming its acceptance of the Arab consensus of January. For March 14, it’s a no-win situation. Even if it sincerely wishes to, the pro-Saudi Lebanese coalition is not in a position to give Riyadh what it wants, in part because the government’s official declaration states that “all Lebanese citizens have the right to defend themselves against Israeli occupation or attacks by their own means.” It was drafted ambiguously to give legitimacy to Hezbollah’s armed action without spelling it out. The Lebanese government calling Hezbollah a terrorist organization is simply impossible: Hezbollah is part of the government. If March 14 did so unilaterally, it would be a declaration of war and nobody, even March 14, wants trouble now in Lebanon.
Second, if the Future Current in particular was to support an open attack by the kingdom against Hezbollah, it would not only have to face retaliation from its adversaries in the internal political arena. It would also risk triggering a real Sunni/Shiite confrontation in Lebanon. In the last two years, satirical TV programs making fun of Hezbollah leaders on two occasions proved enough to bring angry Shiite citizens to the streets by then tens of thousands. Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese minister accused by Riyadh of the crime of lèse-majesté, was not referring to anything less than a risk of general explosion when he said: “Between Arab unanimity and national unity, we lean towards the latter.”
So now the question looms: who will blink first? Saad or Salman?
Photo: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri