Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Options for Lebanon’s Sunnis

Saudi Arabia’s suspension of its military aid to Lebanon may upset sectarian relations in the country, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend its $4 billion in military aid to the Lebanese military and security forces has left some in Lebanon, especially the March 14 forces allied with the kingdom, reeling.

The decision also raised concerns of further Gulf measures in light of the tense relations between Arab Gulf countries, and also between the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and Iran. It is feared that Lebanese workers in the Gulf may be deported or Gulf deposits in Lebanon withdrawn.

The decision came after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil abstained from a vote on two resolutions in the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemning the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad.

The abstentions came even as Hizbullah, its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, and its media continued to criticise Saudi Arabia, particularly for its role in the war in Yemen and the Syrian crisis.

March 14 leaders hold Hizbullah responsible for the decision to suspend the military aid due to its attacks on Saudi Arabia. Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, accused Hizbullah of costing Lebanon billions of dollars in military aid.

Saudi Arabia had allocated $3 billion for arms for the Lebanese army to be purchased from France, as well as another $1 billion to be divided between the military and Lebanese security establishments, half of which has already been spent purchasing military and security equipment for the country.

Saad Al-Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, said he understood Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend the aid. Al-Hariri also signed a petition expressing Lebanon’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia and urged his supporters to sign it as well.

Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, said that Lebanon is keen to support Arab solidarity, but if faced with a choice between such solidarity and its own national unity, it would choose the latter.

Although he refused to bear responsibility for events at the Arab and Islamic ministers meetings, and for his dispute with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam over the country’s foreign policy, he expressed his willingness to take part in a proposed ministerial delegation to Saudi Arabia.

In contrast to its ally Hizbullah, the Free Patriotic Movement has affirmed Lebanon’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, downplayed fears over the Lebanese lira, saying that the size of the Gulf deposits in Lebanese banks had been exaggerated.

Since its inception as a political entity in 1920 under the French Mandate, Lebanon has been strongly linked economically with the rest of the Arab world because of its geographical location, its service economy, its paucity of agricultural and industrial resources, and its political and economic freedoms, as well as its educated, cosmopolitan human resources.

Before independence, Lebanon’s mountains and coastlines attracted many Arab tourists, primarily from Egypt, Iraq and Palestine. Beirut was a major port that served the entire Levant region, and the Lebanese banking system absorbed surplus Egyptian capital when cotton production in the country flourished.

As the economic profile of the region shifted and oil became ascendant, Lebanon became a prime destination for Gulf tourists and oil money. Even during the 15-year civil war, it continued to play this role, reaching its apex under then-Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, who had Saudi citizenship.

Al-Hariri’s policies were based on a mutual understanding between Syria and Saudi Arabia: security and military matters were left largely to Damascus, while Al-Hariri assumed the mission of attracting Gulf investment and conducting foreign policy in coordination with Damascus and Riyadh.

Room was left for the country’s special relationship with France and outreach with Washington.

Al-Hariri’s assassination in February 2005 and the differences between him and Damascus after Bashar Al-Assad became president of Syria put an end to such policies. Despite tense relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, the latter continued to support Lebanon, and it and other Gulf countries played a major role in rebuilding Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion.

Saudi support has continued both to the Future Movement and the Lebanese state. This peaked in December 2013 when Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced that Saudi King Abdullah was giving $3 billion to the country to purchase armaments from France.

Saad Al-Hariri announced that Saudi Arabia had also given $1 billion to support the Lebanese army and security services in their confrontation with terrorism, provided that the sum was spent under Al-Hariri’s supervision.

The Saudi decision to suspend its military aid to Lebanon is part of a series of Gulf actions that could be described as “disengaging” from Lebanon. The first was the halt in Gulf tourism, starting with the Syrian crisis and in response to Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria. Relations became tenser after Hizbullah’s stance on the Bahrain crisis and the war in Yemen, when Gulf investment flows to Lebanon dried up.

The ongoing tension between the Gulf states and Hizbullah has created a climate of unease between Hizbullah supporters and Gulf citizens. Gulf Arabs have nearly disappeared from the streets of Beirut, though they own substantial property in the city and the surrounding mountains.

The tension has persisted despite attempts by Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, a co-leader of the Shia community, to defuse it. These attempts have received a positive response from the Gulf states, and the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Awwad Asiri, recently visited Berri and invited him to visit the kingdom.

For the most part, however, the attempts have only sparked further escalation on the part of Hizbullah, whose hostility at times has exceeded that of the Iranians.

Some believe that the Saudi decision, though perhaps sparked by the stance of the Lebanese foreign minister, is in fact part of a recalibration of Saudi strategy in the region in light of rising tensions with Iran and the turn to a region-wide conflict.

According to this analysis, Saudi Arabia needs allies that will stand with it against Iran and its proxies in the region and not be a financial and political burden. While Saudi investment in Lebanon has been enormous, returns have been meagre.

Hizbullah is the ascendant political and military force in the country, and the influence of the March 14 Movement has waned to the extent that the presidential candidates are both from the March 8 Movement and are close allies of Hizbullah.

It looks as if the first victims of the Saudi actions will be Saudi allies in Lebanon. The moves exacerbate the financial and political crisis of Saudi allies in Lebanon, who are already suffering from a substantial diminishment of their financial capacities.

Moreover, the sectarian problems resulting from the Saudi-Hizbullah tensions and the Syrian crisis have been putting additional pressure on the country’s Sunni community. The Sunnis are angered by Hizbullah’s position, but they cannot vent their anger given the armed Shia presence in mixed Sunni-Shia areas.

The Sunni community also knows that conflict will ultimately increase the power of Sunni extremism, which could not only strike out at its Shia opponents but also at the Sunni community in Lebanon as well.

Between Hizbullah’s weapons, fears of Sunni extremism and Saudi disappointments, the choices of Lebanon’s Sunnis are now limited to clinging to the Lebanese state and attempting to preserve ties with Saudi Arabia without sparking an unwinnable confrontation with Hizbullah on the ground.

As for Lebanon’s Christians, they are increasingly distancing themselves from the sectarian conflict in the region, or at least trying not to get involved, while maintaining their ties to the parties in the conflict and preventing any spillover into the Christian community.

Thus far the newfound relationship between the two biggest Christian movements and their former foes — Saudi ally Samir Geagea and his Lebanese Forces Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement led by Hizbullah ally Gebran Bassil — seems unaffected by the crisis, although Bassil is a major player in it and Geagea has been an ardent defender of Saudi Arabia.

He has directed blame solely at Hizbullah, refusing to hold the foreign minister responsible and saying that the entire government bears responsibility for the foreign policy crisis.

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