Drum beat of war
Beirut is now the focus of the burgeoning Saudi-Iranian rivalry, writes Yassamine Mather
Hariri: still in Riyadh
The political saga involving Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to make headlines and we are nowhere near a resolution of the situation. In the meantime, the war in Yemen - scene of another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia - is entering a more dangerous phase. Some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the fighting, while Yemen’s population is suffering from Saudi sanctions, which are stopping food and medicine from getting in - and stopping the Yemenis from getting out.
So it was no surprise that in his first TV interview since his resignation, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri gave stark warnings about the real threat posed to the economy if the Saudi kingdom imposes new economic sanctions on Lebanon. Hariri denied he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will, claiming he was there to serve Lebanon’s interests, to protect the country from Iran and Hezbollah - who, he repeated, were trying to take over the country.
Before the interview Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Christian president, had said Hariri’s situation in Saudi Arabia was creating doubts over anything that he had said or might say, and his statements could not be taken as an expression of his free will: he was living in “mysterious circumstances” in Riyadh which were restricting his freedom and “imposing conditions on his residency and on contact with him, even by members of his family”.
According to TheAtlantic website, the Lebanese prime minister “appeared uncomfortable”:
At times, he and his interviewer, from his own television station, looked to handlers off camera. The exchange ended abruptly, after Hariri implied that he might take back his resignation and negotiate with Hezbollah, seemingly veering from the hard-line Saudi script. “I am not against Hezbollah as a political party, but that doesn’t mean we allow it to destroy Lebanon,” he said. His resignation does nothing to thwart Hezbollah’s power; if anything, a vacuum benefits Hezbollah, which doesn’t need the Lebanese state to bolster its power or legitimacy.1
The World Pro News website claims: “Nearly 55 minutes into the interview Sunday, there was a mysterious man, caught briefly on camera, holding a piece of paper in Hariri’s line of sight.”2
The TV interview itself became quite dramatic. According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, at one point Hariri burst into tears, saying:
I know that there are a considerable number of Lebanese who are concerned about me. I am here with the clear message that Lebanon comes first. There are countries that I am visiting that care more about Lebanon than factions within Lebanon and that pains me very much.
Referring to his contact with an aide of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Hariri said:
In my conversation with an advisor to the Iranian spiritual leader in Beirut before [my] resignation, I made it clear to him that Iran must not intervene in the affairs of Arab countries, including Lebanon via Hezbollah. I am in favour of pluralism and the political activity of parties in Lebanon from every [religious] community, but those parties need to work for the good of Lebanon, not other countries. We in Lebanon have adopted a policy of non-intervention on the subject of other countries, and this policy has been eroded in recent years.3
Khamenei’s advisor was Ali Akbar Velayati, who was quick to deny the allegations. Referring to his meeting with Hariri in Beirut only one day before the latter’s surprise resignation, he said that, contrary to Hariri’s claims, the talks were not “tough, violent or involving threats”. Velayati denied that Iran had been interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, adding that in the meeting Hariri had tried to play the role of mediator between Tehran and Riyadh.
Change in attitude
In Lebanon the resignation has provoked anger against the Saudi royals. According to the BBC Persian Service,
The taxi driver in Beirut said that if he realises he has picked up a Saudi passenger he will ask them to get out of his car. He refers to Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, as “Ya elbal shom” (that disgraceful shame). He then raises his arms to the sky and says: “God, this mad child wants to bring war to our country, so that we become lost in the mountains. Let us hope that all you [Arabs] of the Gulf burn in the fires of your own oil.”4
The reporter adds that the taxi driver’s opinion is typical of views expressed by Lebanese of all religions. For example, on November 12 Beirut was hosting a marathon and many runners and spectators were carrying Hariri themed placards: “Waiting for you - we don’t believe your resignation.”
By November 13 there were rumours that Bahaa Hariri, the former prime minister’s brother, was going to replace him. However, interior minister Nohad Machnouk dismissed the idea: “In Lebanon things happen through elections, not pledges of allegiance.”
Those who have contacted Hariri in Riyadh claim he does not sound like himself and replies to all questions about his wellbeing with one short sentence: “I am fine”. Asked if he is coming back, he replies: “Inshallah” (God willing).5
The Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, claimed that the plan is to send Saad Hariri back to Beirut to submit his official resignation letter, from where he will go to a European capital - most likely Paris - and leave politics altogether.
In those sections of the Arab press and media not directly paid for by the Saudis, reporters and commentators are also pouring scorn over the other headline grabbing Saudi measure: fighting corruption. According to Odeh Bisharat, writing in Ha’aretz:
It’s ridiculous to hear about the young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman throwing dozens of members of the royal family and other senior figures into jail on suspicion of corruption. After all, the kingdom was founded on corruption. Everywhere a spring of corruption gushes forth; near every oil well, a spring of corruption flows. This is not a kingdom that has corruption: Saudi Arabia, under the obliging administration of the royal family, is corruption that has a kingdom ….
Saudi oil has become a tool for repressing progressive culture, for blocking advancement of the status of women and, above all, for supporting fundamentalist tendencies, from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the establishment of al Qa’eda and other killing organisations. And all with the blessing and embrace of the developed west.6
As elsewhere in the Arab world, Saudi influence in Lebanon is directly related to its economic power. Saudi Arabia imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon in 2015, froze $3 billion in aid for the Lebanese army and business deals between the two countries dwindled. The economic threat Hariri mentions in his TV interview is reference to further sanctions by Saudi Arabia and other countries on remittances sent by 400,000 Lebanese citizens who work in the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that Lebanon gets around $2.5 billion from money sent by Lebanese workers in the oil-rich emirates to their home country.
To many Lebanese citizens, the new approach, which comes after a decade of failed Saudi efforts to bolster Hariri’s pro-Saudi Future Movement, looks like revenge against all of Lebanon. According to this view, Saudi Arabia no longer distinguishes between friendly Sunnis, hostile Shias and the Christian community: Riyadh has decided to take a position against the interests of the country as a whole.
The economic situation in Lebanon is not very different from that of many other countries in the region. Since the 1990s it has faced a shortfall in income (Lebanon’s balance of trade deficit was running at $15.65 billion in 2016), leading to serious international debt. Uncertainty about the future have led to poor rates of growth, while an all-encompassing corruption is adding to the country’s economic woes. According to the World Bank, the war in Syria and the relocation of 1.5 million Syrian refugee is costing Lebanon about $7.5 billion a year.
While existing Saudi sanctions have clearly damaged the Lebanese economy, any new sanctions - including attempts to stop remittances from workers in the Persian Gulf countries, restricting tourism, and cutting off the burgeoning Lebanese finance sector from access to Arab capitals - will no doubt bankrupt the country. According to a report on the website of the Washington Institute,
… 80% of foreign direct investment in Lebanon comes from the Gulf, 40% of which is in the real estate sector. While Gulf investment in Lebanon has not increased since 2012, despite periodic political problems, investors have not, en masse, sold off their investments either and thereby harmed the economy. Lately, however, Lebanon has witnessed a reported 10-20% drop in real estate values. To be sure, a Gulf sell-off would have further serious consequences for Lebanon’s formerly robust real estate market ….
Most notable, however, is Saudi Arabia’s potential impact on the critical Lebanese banking sector. Saudi deposits at the Banque du Liban, as the Lebanese central bank is known, are about $860 million, the sum originally placed there to help stabilise the Lebanese lira when Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s late father, was first elected prime minister in 1992. To support Hariri and his economic plans for Lebanon, Saudi Arabia agreed to keep these deposits in the Central Bank.
Now that Saudi Arabia has expressed its view of a Lebanese “declaration of war” and that Saad Hariri has resigned, concerns have arisen that Riyadh could withdraw these deposits. While overall the deposits account for only about 2% of Lebanon’s foreign reserves, their removal could shake confidence in the Central Bank, if not destabilise the lira.7
In this respect Hariri is right in predicting doom and gloom for the country in his latest televised interview.
Riyadh is also continuing to exercise its influence over the rest of the region. Egypt’s economy, like that of Lebanon, has historically been tied to Saudi Arabian and Gulf capital from the time of Sadat and Mubarak to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and now general Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Last week el-Sisi announced that the second round of reconciliation talks between representatives of the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, will take place in Cairo on November 21.
Egypt is supposed to have found a solution to the difficult issue of who will control the Palestinian security forces. The proposed plan involves the creation of a national security council, in which Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will have equal representation, with direct involvement from Egyptian military officials, who will have the final say on any disagreement between the two factions.
One of the reasons why Egypt (prompted by Saudi Arabia) is taking such an interest in bringing about a Hamas-Fatah deal is the desire to reduce Iran’s influence in that part of the Middle East. In early November, the Saudi king summoned Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, to Riyadh, where he was reminded of the importance of a deal with Hamas - one that would reduce Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs and presumably increases Egypt’s role.
So at a time when Islamic State is steadily losing all its former territory in Iraq and Syria, the zone of conflict between Saudi Arabia (supported by the United States and to a certain extent Israel) and Iran’s Islamic Republic (supported by Russia) has expanded to cover most of the Middle East - from Lebanon, Syria and the occupied territories to Yemen and Afghanistan.
The conflict has many facets - economic, political and military. Its victims are the ordinary people of the region, who are excluded from any role when it comes to decisions on foreign policy and war.
And, as if that was not bad enough, they have to endure the relentless media propaganda onslaught waged by both sides. Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, make use of a number of Arabic TV stations, such as Al Manar and Al Kawthar, plus Press TV in English, while Saudi princes and their acolytes are financing a range of Persian satellite TV stations. These range from the trashy Channels based in Los Angeles, to the more respectable news channel, Iran International. This claims to be an ‘independent’ news broadcaster, yet is apparently run by a consortium of Saudi financiers.