Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon in the hot seat

Arab criticisms of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah have led to a campaign to maintain civic peace in Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab Interior Ministers Council, an institution of the Arab League, to label the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah a terrorist movement continues to spark reactions in Lebanon.

Many political forces have tried to minimise the severity of the crisis and its consequences, particularly political forces allied with Hizbullah, such as Amal, which controls many of the country’s Shias with Hizbullah, and the Free Patriotic Movement, the biggest Christian bloc in Lebanon.

In contrast, some smaller Hizbullah-allied forces have sharpened up their rhetoric against the Gulf states that are members of the GCC.

Head of Future Movement and Hizbullah political opponent Saad Al-Hariri said that Hizbullah has engaged in “terrorist acts” abroad, especially in Syria and Yemen, but he stressed that dialogue with the group should continue in the light of Lebanon’s domestic circumstances.

The comments came as Al-Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s most important ally in Lebanon, is attempting to mend relations with Riyadh, damaged by stances taken by the Lebanese Foreign Ministry in Arab and international forums.

Al-Hariri has been striving to highlight Lebanon’s Arab identity and its historical ties to Saudi Arabia, while also attempting to cooperate with Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and head of the Amal Movement, to maintain civic peace in Lebanon and keep the country from sliding into Sunni-Shia communal strife.

Many Lebanese Sunnis sympathise with Saudi Arabia, while a large part of Shia public opinion supports Hizbullah’s position.

It is in this context that Al-Hariri has pointedly tried to contain some of the invective hurled by Shia protestors in response to the denigration of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah by an Arab satellite TV channel.

Lebanese officials are also busily trying to protect the country’s economy from the fallout from the crisis with the Gulf, especially since the US has already tightened sanctions on Hizbullah, raising fears that Lebanon could become isolated financially, either by the US or the Gulf states.

This would have a major impact on the Lebanese banking sector, which is considered the backbone of the national economy.

Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the country is financially and economically stable and there is no real threat to Lebanon’s financial status or the stability of the Lebanese lira.

He said there are “no indications” that deposits in Lebanese banks or sovereign state funds with the Central Bank are being withdrawn from the country. In any case, these deposits are minimal, he said, and do not affect the size of Central Bank assets and reserves or the level of individual deposits in private banks.

There is “a normal flow of funds that has not been affected by the political crisis of the last two weeks, which we hope will end as soon as possible in order to restore order to inter-Arab relations and especially Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Arab Gulf,” Khalil said.

“It is true that the present political climate has had a negative impact, but we are working to prevent rumour-based hysteria from spreading among the Lebanese people,” he added. “Deposits in Lebanese banks today are very high, many times more than the country’s GDP, and this is a very good sign.”

Khalil said the Central Bank holds nearly $50 billion in reserves and that various sectors and ministries are coordinating with it to meet any eventuality the country might face.

Ironically, one reason that Lebanon is able to deal with the repercussions of the current crisis is because the economy has acclimated to shocks.

The country’s 15-year civil war and successive wars with Israel have accustomed the Lebanese economy to functioning in the worst of conditions. The Syrian crisis now buffeting Lebanon has already prompted a cessation of Gulf tourism and the exit or freeze of some Gulf investments.

What the Lebanese most fear is that the crisis with the Gulf countries will prompt the repatriation of Lebanese workers in the Gulf, who constitute an important source of financial remittances to the country.

Lebanese officials are betting on the country’s historical ties to the Gulf states and on the fact that these understand that most Lebanese are not responsible for the practices of some political players in the country.

The possible return of Lebanese workers from the Gulf remains the greatest economic danger facing Lebanon in the current crisis. The Gulf countries host some 500,000 Lebanese workers who send home between $7 billion and $8 billion a year, along with various other investments, according to the Lebanese Labour Council in the UAE.

The number of Lebanese workers may be smaller than other Arab and non-Arab expatriate communities in the Gulf, but the Lebanese community has the highest level of education and its members tend to occupy senior positions.

Many Lebanese also run their own businesses, and so remittances are larger than for other countries relative to the number of expatriates. The Lebanese economy relies heavily on these remittances and on the savings of expatriate workers, given the low industrial and agricultural production in Lebanon.

Lebanon has one of the highest ratios of expatriates to home population in the world, although many Lebanese émigrés have no ties to the motherland, having left the country too long ago to retain them.

This is especially true of Lebanese emigrants to South America, where it is thought that some eight million Brazilians are of Lebanese origin, many of them occupying high-level positions in the country.

While emigration rates vary among sects and depend on destinations, migration to the Gulf is more common among Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities. Although there are substantial numbers of Shia in the Gulf, Africa has always been the primary destination for the Lebanese Shia, followed by Lebanese Christians.

Yet, as one of the main theatres of the region’s current cold war, Lebanon is walking a tightrope. Although the parties involved are keen to avoid a conflagration, this will require extra care from all sides given the already numerous flare-ups in a region that does not lack for conflicts.

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