Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon and the region

Yet again, Lebanon is a bellwether for the state of relations between key regional powers. Saudi Arabia is flexing its muscles, which has consequences for Egypt’s national security, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the modern history of the Middle East, Lebanon has always been regarded as an “object” as opposed to an “agent” of action. In this capacity, it has been termed the “barometer” of relations in the region.

So when Lebanon becomes an arena for regional agents to settle political scores, the calculations that shape a regional decision with respect to Lebanon, or any of the parties in that country, obviously take into account factors that extend beyond the scope of the Lebanese domestic context.

Because of this, any attempt to explain the Saudi decision, supported by Arab Gulf countries and other Arab countries, to impose a series of economic and political sanctions on Lebanon cannot be approached solely through an analysis of the bilateral relations between Riyadh and Beirut. Rather, it is crucial to situate such an analysis in the framework of regional developments as a whole.

Saudi Arabia is in the process of revising its strategic vision of its regional environment. This signifies that it has a strategic vision and mechanisms to reformulate its policies on the region and its future, and that it has developed new instruments to implement these policies.

This is evident in the application of the gradated collective punishment by Arab Gulf and other Arab countries against Lebanon. Before this it was manifested in the Saudi drive to forge the largest ever number of regional coalitions, such as the Storm of Resolve coalition, followed by the Islamic Coalition for the War against Terrorism.

This new behaviour on the part of Riyadh indicates that it is redrawing the map of its foreign relations, which is evidenced in the Saudi mechanisms used in the revaluation of its regional relations. The Saudi decision to reassess its relations with Lebanon (and not Hizbullah) took the form of a directive to the Saudi Foreign Ministry not to send any of its staff members to Lebanon, thereby introducing the first reduction in the level of diplomatic representation between the two countries since the Lebanese civil war.

This was followed by a series of economic sanctions. Saudi Arabia applied the same mechanism to Iran after Iranian extremists attacked its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad on 3 January following the execution in Saudi Arabia of the prominent Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr.

In like manner, Riyadh withdrew its diplomatic missions in Yemen following the Houthi-Saleh coup that culminated in the Houthi occupation of Sanaa on 21 September 2014. The mechanism may be the same, but the applications depict a trajectory that Muataz Salama, an expert in Gulf relations at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, described as a “radical transformation in Saudi foreign policy”.

If, in the past, Riyadh approached regional issues in a diplomatic framework or indirectly through proxies, the shift to the direct approach is a response shaped by the context of current changes at the regional level. These can be viewed in the framework of a number of crucial developments. The first is the circumstances generated by the gradual and unilateral US withdrawal from the region, which have kindled Riyadh’s awareness of the need to fill the vacuum.

Riyadh translated this awareness into proactive measures and drives, most notably its military intervention in Yemen and, more recently, its declaration of its possible intent to intervene militarily in Syria and its implementation of training manoeuvres to prepare forces for a ground offensive there.

With regard to the question at hand, regarding sanctions against Lebanon, to Riyadh these are clearly connected with Hizbullah’s role in the Yemeni and Syrian crises, which Riyadh perceives as threatening its interests in both countries.

Another critical development with a major regional impact is the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, which comes on top of Tehran’s drive to expand its influence in Iraq and then in Syria and Yemen within the context of the Arab Spring. This raises the need to discuss and delineate camps.

Whereas Hizbullah had previously been affiliated with an Arab identity it has more recently boasted of its affiliation with Iran and its implementation of the Iranian agenda. Accordingly, the Saudi reassessment of its commitments and allocations to Lebanon was informed by the consideration of who stands in the opposing camp. The same applies to its reaction to the Houthi movement.

Moreover, now that the Iranian nuclear accord may open the way for Iran to become a regional player freed of international sanctions, Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly keen to reassert itself as a regional leader and it is using all available cards in a drive to align Arab parties outside of the Gulf, as well as non-Arab regional parties such as Turkey, behind it in its regional battle.

At the international level, Russia’s return to the region does not favour Saudi Arabia’s perceived interests. This has implications with respect to developments in Saudi foreign policy at the international level. Riyadh was surely wary of a shift in Washington’s and other Western powers’ outlook toward the region, from unequivocal support for Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran to the need to strike a strategic equilibrium between the two.

At the same time, Riyadh has been observing Russian-US performance in the region and it believes that the coordination it sees between the two does not work in its interests. This became clear in the context of the ceasefire agreement in Syria, which it believes opens horizons to a political settlement on a basis that does not respect Saudi interests in the crisis. Therefore, it sought to circumvent such a political settlement mechanism by calling for a move to “Plan B’, pertaining to a federal system in Syria.

Saudi Arabia certainly realises that current international policies will lead to sweeping changes in the region that will extend beyond the framework of the Arab order (covering the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa) and even the conventional Middle Eastern system. Both Arab and Western experts believe that political contours are shifting. So much so that that the Middle East that arose in the decades after the Sykes-Picot Agreement will no longer be recognisable once the storms of the “Arab Spring” epoch subside.

Riyadh, therefore, feels that it must rally all its energies and work to assemble as many assets as possible to weather these changes and emerge relatively unscathed. Towards this end, Saudi Arabia is working to build itself into a major regional power whose influence extends beyond the Gulf and Arab spheres. It knows that this cannot be achieved in an environment of open conflicts unless it develops strong claws.

But Riyadh is simultaneous gauging the costs of sustaining protracted conflicts, especially in terms of material costs in light of economic circumstances related to plunging oil prices. This has induced it to search for alternatives to the settlement mechanism, which it believes will accomplish nothing but the reorganisation of the management of conflicts, rather than their conclusion.

This was manifested in the intersection between the decision to widen the sanctions against Hizbullah and the Saudi call to UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to move to “Plan B” regarding the federal proposition.

But there is yet another important development that cannot be excluded from the picture. Reacting to the proposal for a federal formula for Syria, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry declared that the unity of Syria is a “red line”. In the same statement, the ministry described Cairo’s relations with Riyadh as “excellent”.

At the same time, Riyadh made a slight concession with regard to the Syrian president, saying that he would have to go “sooner rather than later”. This marks a small Saudi retreat with respect to the outputs of the Vienna talks at the beginning of the year, which yielded the prospect of an interim phase in Syria. Egypt, for its part, still maintains that the political settlement process holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis.

Most likely, if Egypt does not work with an Arab and international bloc to safeguard Syrian unity and ward off the spectre of partition that appears to be looming, on the basis of the policies of various regional and international powers, there will be no future for a united Syria and the world will see a repeat of the Iraq scenario which, according to all available indicators, would ultimately jeopardise Egypt’s national security.

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