Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

For the sake of Lebanon

Saudi Arabia has been punishing Lebanon for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s siding with Iran in Iraq and Syria and has cut billions of dollars in aid to the country, writes Camelia Entekhabifard from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Once called the “Bride of the Middle East,” Lebanon today is no longer a popular destination for tourism. The assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005 and the escalation of the conflict between Lebanon and Israel in 2006 damaged the country’s tourism industry and its wider economy.

More recently, during the five-year crisis in Syria hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured across the border into Lebanon. However, none of this has harmed the country more than the current Iranian-Saudi power struggle.

Years of Iranian support and investment in southern Lebanon, dominated by the Shia and seeing the empowerment of the Shia group Hizbullah, has caused growing internal divisions and political problems in Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and its actions as a militia separate from the Lebanese national army that has used its military power against its opponents have made many Lebanese increasingly unhappy.

However, Lebanon, a country which borders Israel and Syria, is a strategic area for Iran, and no matter how upset or angry the Lebanese become at Iranian involvement in their country it is hard to believe that as long as Iran has the money and the will to support Hizbullah any changes will come.

While some Lebanese observers have been asking whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards may now withdraw their support for Hizbullah, in the opinion of many prominent Arab politicians Iran’s behaviour towards the region has not changed in the way that might have been expected in the wake of the nuclear deal with the West.

But when Iran gained more ground and power in Syria and Iraq and tensions rose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia decided to shift its policy in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia cuts billions of dollars in aid to Lebanon and also cut off funding for its military.

Lebanon, a country with no resources aside from tourism and the aid received from international donors, depends for aid on the Arab countries, among them Saudi Arabia.

While Iran has been funding Shia groups in south Lebanon and Hizbullah, Saudi funds have mainly gone to government organisations and other institutions that mostly benefit the public in general.

The Saudis may have thought that cutting their aid would force the Lebanese to take action on the turmoil that has left the country without a president for more than two years. Hizbullah has been blamed for this situation because of the veto power it has in the Lebanese parliament and its rejection of various possible candidates.

Some Christian Lebanese believe that Hizbullah may wish to change the country’s constitution, which historically designates a Christian to become president. Such a change could open the way for Hizbullah to nominate a Shia for the presidency. The next parliamentary elections, pushed back to 2017, may also see pressure for changes in favour of Hizbullah.

Empty restaurants and cafes in Beirut all speak of the current economic hardship in Lebanon. Downtown Beirut’s restaurants were once full at lunch time and were surrounded by media buildings and publishing houses. However, they are now mostly closed because of the lack of business, and journalists from the newspaper Al-Nahar and the Future TV channel have not been paid for almost a year.

The lack of Saudi aid is the reason for the unpaid salaries.

Saudi Arabia has punished Lebanon for Hizbullah’s siding with Iran in Iraq and Syria and has ordered Saudi tourists to avoid travelling to Lebanon. The moves were followed by those of the other four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last year when Saudi Arabia cut billions of dollars in aid.

One taxi-driver in Beirut, a Christian, said this week that he was praying that the US would host talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia before his country became the “Islamic Republic of Lebanon.”

“The nuclear deal has been making money for Hizbullah,” he said. “Now is the time for Saudi-Iranian talks for the sake of Lebanon.”

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