by Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner
In recent weeks, Lebanon has become a brighter flashpoint in the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and subsequently the League of Arab States, designated Hezbollah a “terrorist” organization earlier this month, GCC authorities have announced plans to deport thousands of Lebanese living in the Gulf, three Kuwaitis were found killed in Lebanon, and a United Arab Emirates (UAE) court case began involving seven people charged with Hezbollah links.
Although Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had previously classified Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Kuwait, Qatar, and the Sultanate of Oman have now backed the GCC and Arab League’s designation. This followed Saudi Arabia’s “comprehensive review” of its relations with Lebanon last month, and Riyadh’s decision to suspend and cancel approximately $4 billion in annual aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces and police, accused of being heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah. Several days later Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE joined Riyadh in imposing travel restrictions on Lebanon, which has potentially serious economic implications given that Gulf Arab tourists are known to be big spenders in the Mediterranean country.
Officials in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Tunisia—as well as representatives of Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement and Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine— condemned the GCC’s move against Hezbollah, with some accusing the Council of serving Zionist interests. Although supportive of the GCC’s terrorist designation, the U.S. government warned Riyadh against placing additional financial pressure on Lebanon’s already fragile economy, expressing concern that Iran could ultimately become the biggest beneficiary and strengthen its influence in the country.
Tension between Lebanon’s Party of God and the Gulf Arab sheikdoms is not new. For many years the vitriol between GCC and Hezbollah leaders has been evident in their recurring exchange of tense words. Gulf Arab officials repeatedly accuse the group of operating terror cells in the GCC and elsewhere in the region. In its info-war, Riyadh is strongly pushing the idea that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, invoking an emotive issue for America in the hopes of interrupting the thaw in Washington-Tehran relations. Hezbollah’s leadership maintains that this is all propaganda and frequently alleges that Saudi Arabia orchestrates terrorism across the Muslim world, including inside Lebanon.
Part of what prompted Riyadh’s action was Lebanon’s refusal to side with Saudi Arabia in the Arab League as the diplomatic crisis with Iran escalated after the violent attacks on Riyadh’s diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic in early January. Saudi Arabia’s review of relations with Lebanon was Riyadh’s way of telling its allies in the March 14 alliance (led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri) that the degree to which Hezbollah has seized power in Lebanon and closely aligned the country with Tehran is unacceptable. The message is simple. Unless Lebanese officials do more to chip away at Hezbollah’s power, the country will come under greater economic pressure from the GCC, which plays an important role in its economy.
The Geopolitical Stakes
The GCC’s move against Hezbollah takes place within the context of the Middle East’s shifting geopolitical fault lines. Moscow and Tehran’s common cause across the region has led to a tripartite axis of power between Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, which has demonstrated its collective strength in recent battles across Syria. By removing billions of dollars in aid to resource-poor Lebanon, and by calling on their citizens to avoid Beirut as a tourist destination, the GCC is seeking to exploit a weakness in this axis—the Lebanese economy.
By withholding aid from Lebanon’s security apparatus at a time when the country’s stability is already fragile, and by simultaneously putting pressure on the country’s tourism sector, the Saudi/GCC leadership seeks to weaken Hezbollah’s ability to influence the country’s domestic and foreign policies. This is consistent with the GCC’s tradition of utilizing its powerful financial leverage in the global economy to further the geopolitical interests of its members, rather than wage direct military intervention in conflicts.
The GCC states are going after Hezbollah supporters in their own countries like never before. Since the GCC designation, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have made historic legal moves against a variety of expats and nationals seen as colluding with Hezbollah. In the Emirates, for instance, a UAE State Security court is trying seven people charged with handing state secrets to the Lebanese group. The timing of the UAE’s announcement is said to indicate the Emirates’ intention to serve as the GCC’s model for cracking down on Hezbollah-linked individuals in the Gulf Arab kingdoms.
Although the GCC’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization has clear domestic implications, the impact on foreign policy appears uncertain. Given that the group comprises a sizeable portion of Lebanon’s democratically-elected government, does the GCC’s label imply that the state of Lebanon itself constitutes a terrorist entity? Does the government of Lebanon actually have the ability to meaningfully curb Hezbollah’s power in the country, or abroad? And, given that Iraq and Syria were two of the countries where the Saudi Arabia-led 34-nation Islamic military coalition was said to be planning their campaign against global terrorism, if the alliance were to project its military in to either country, would their forces actually target Hezbollah?
Lebanon Under Pressure
After the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps established Hezbollah—an Islamic resistance movement that essentially became a “state-within-a-state”—the balance of power in the Levant shifted as the Lebanese Shi’ite group prevented Israel from achieving any of its stated objectives during its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Although many on the Arab street (including Sunnis) championed Hezbollah’s success in fighting Israel to a standstill in the 2006 war, the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon has always been a source of unease among GCC officials. The group represents Iran’s most successful effort to export its revolutionary ideology to Arab lands and has delivered a severe blow to Saudi Arabia’s traditional position as the anchor of the Middle East and North Africa’s political order.
From the perspective of Riyadh and other GCC capitals, it is no longer logical to funnel billions of dollars into Lebanon given the extent to which Hezbollah and its allies influence Beirut’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia sees itself as encircled by countries under increasing Iranian influence—as a result of post-Saddam Iraq’s closer orientation toward Iran, the ongoing quagmire in Yemen (where the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement remains in control of Sana’a and other parts of Yemen one year after Riyadh launched Operation Decisive Storm), and embattled Syria having turned in Assad’s favor after the direct military intervention of Russia and Iran.
The move against Hezbollah represents an effort to strike at an area of weakness in Iran’s web of alliances—the Lebanese economy—and assert Saudi influence in a country where the kingdom has maintained deep ties with the country’s elites for many years. As Lebanon’s difficult economic problems have worsened as a result of the destabilizing impact of the Syrian crisis, the country has grown increasingly reliant on money from the Gulf. The GCC’s cessation of aid and imposition of travel restrictions therefore has much potential to exacerbate the country’s already challenging economic environment.
Rather than deploying an Arab force to Lebanon in an effort to crush Hezbollah—a proposal made by Prince Saud al-Faisal in 2008, according to WikiLeaks—the GCC’s latest move is aimed at pressuring Riyadh’s allies in Lebanon to forcefully confront Hezbollah’s ability to impose its will there. Consistent with the Gulf Arabs’ traditional foreign policy strategy of maintaining and pursuing influence through financial leverage, the Saudi campaign against the Lebanese resistance group and its patron Iran is nevertheless intensifying.
Photo: Hezbollah in Lebanon