Beirut is now the focus of the burgeoning Saudi-Iranian rivalry
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.
In response to Trump’s ever more bellicose anti-Iran campaign, Putin has strengthened Russia’s links with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis of resistance. The world is getting ever more dangerous, warns Yassamine Mather
Touching the orb: Egypt’s president Sisi, Saudi king Salman and Donald Trump
Last year, when Donald Trump was elected US president, old-order defenders of imperialism were telling the citizens of poor third-world countries run by dictators that the ‘checks and balances’ in the wonderful democracy that is the US will stop Trump’s mad policies from becoming reality.
Unfortunately, although the claim could well have some truth in relation to internal policies, when it comes to international politics and the Middle East in particular, many of his most irrational election statements are becoming a reality. Amongst them the pro-Israeli, pro-Saudi policy goes well beyond traditional US neoconservative positions. Here Trump’s unelected son in-law, Jared Kushner, is playing a crucial role advising simultaneously both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This week we had confirmation from the Israeli army’s chief-of-staff, Gadi Eizenkot, of the scale of Saudi-Israeli cooperation. In his first ever interview with a Saudi newspaper, Alaf, Eizenkot told the world that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran. Also for the first time, Israel co-sponsored with Saudi Arabia a resolution against Syria in the UN Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Israeli communications minister Ayoub Kara extended a warm invitation to Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, for what he said were his friendly comments about the country. All this follows a period during which Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman has undertaken a number of unprecedented steps, which include the arrest of scores of princes and ministers, and direct intervention in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs.
To ‘legitimise’ steps taken to normalise relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia summoned Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh last week, to convince him to accept a peace plan put forward by Kushner. Of course, Saudi-Israeli collaboration is an important part of that plan. According to the New York Times, the proposal could include, among other normalisation measures, “overflights by Israeli passenger planes, visas for business people and telecommunication links” with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.1
In Yemen civil war continues and the Saudis have the support and cooperation of the US as well as the UK. In the words of Ron Paul writing in the New American:
And why is there a cholera epidemic? Because the Saudi government – with US support – has blocked every port of entry to prevent critical medicine from reaching suffering Yemenis. This is not a war. It is cruel murder.
The United States is backing Saudi aggression against Yemen by cooperating in every way with the Saudi military. Targeting, intelligence, weapons sales, and more. The US is a partner in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen crimes.2
Then we have the public revelations of Israeli-Saudi cooperation. Of course, no-one had any doubt that it had entered a new phase since Trump’s election. However, the open admission of such relations implies a new era in the politics of the Middle East. On November 20, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s energy minister, confirmed there had been contact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but said that Riyadh was eager to keep the cooperation a secret: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed.”
This claim is in direst contradiction to the official Saudi statement – foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir has said several times in the last two years that Saudi Arabia has “no relationship” with Israel and there have been no secret back channels. Yet last year, after his visit to Riyadh, Mr Trump told the world that he found king Salman and the Saudi leadership to be “very positive” towards Israel.
So less than a year since Trump took office we are seeing new alliances in the Middle East. There is no longer a major war against Islamic State and no-one wants to mention al Qa’eda or its offshoot, Al Nusrah. The ‘enemy’ is Iran – uniting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the majority of the Persian Gulf states.
What we are witnessing is the formation of a new imperialist-led alliance against Iran’s Islamic Republic. Under such circumstances it is bizarre that we keep hearing about a Sunni-Shia conflict. Typical of such ignorant articles is one by Paddy Ashdown in The Independent:
The greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East now is not terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict, into which the great powers are dragged.3
The great powers aren’t dragged into this war: they are behind it. To think that Liberal Democrats were once speakers on Stop the War Coalition platforms.
A firm supporter of the new alliance is Trump’s best friend in Europe, Emanuel Macron. Alain Badiou calls Macron a “neoliberal phantom” and a “leader of a democratic coup d’etat”, who is losing support fast amongst those who voted him president in preference to the much hated Marine Le Pen.
To divert attention from his failures at home Macron has become super-active on the international scene – after all, France is the ‘legitimate’ foreign power which has ‘Lebanon’s interests at heart’. That is why he invited Saad Hariri to Paris and appeared on the steps of the Elysée Palace with the ‘former’ premier of Lebanon – a man who only days earlier had resigned from his post while in another country, Saudi Arabia, on a TV channel owned by Saudis, by all accounts reading a text written for him by his hosts, in which he complained about Iran’s influence in his country!
You might have thought that this was a scene from some comedy, but unfortunately it was all too true – and all too dangerous: the lead players in the drama, Trump and Macron, are so ignorant of regional sensitivities and historical facts that we could be entering a truly catastrophic period for the Middle East. In the last few days Macron has had talks on Lebanon with president Abdel el-Sisi of Egypt, prince Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump himself.
All this because Iran has what they regard as ‘undue influence’ over Hezbollah. Yet despite concerted Saudi/US/French efforts, there is no sign of civil war in Lebanon. The Christian president, Michel Aoun, remains critical of Hariri’s resignation and in fact as soon as the ‘former’ premier landed on Lebanese territory, he decided to ‘temporarily suspend’ that resignation:
Today I presented my resignation to his excellency the president, and he asked me to temporarily suspend submitting it and to put it on hold ahead of further consultations on the reasons for it … I expressed my agreement to this request, in the hope that it will form a serious basis for a responsible dialogue.4
So on what basis did France believe it had the right to intervene in Lebanon’s affairs? Macron – who, by the way, likes to hold cabinet meetings in Versailles – acts as if France is still the colonial protector of Lebanon and Syria. No wonder France is a recruiting ground for IS and other jihadi terrorist groups.
However, many Sunnis in Lebanon believe the Saudi ‘plot’ has already failed. Reports from Beirut talk of the anti-Saudi sentiment expressed by the Lebanese Sunni community. According to Joe Macaron, who is a policy analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, “Riyadh’s risky gambit had no realistic endgame or allies to execute it. It has failed miserably, no matter the outcome.”5
According to Sunniva Rose, Al-Monitor’s reporter who visited the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli,
The escalating regional tensions and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric have direct and dangerous implications for Lebanon. Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament from Tripoli and a member of the political bureau of Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, is pessimistic. “The only way to get out of the situation is through a major clash. If there is enough money funnelled into Lebanon from abroad, a civil war can happen again” …
But in the streets of Tripoli no-one wants to hear this … In the main square, dozens of taxis stand in line waiting for customers. “I never vote,” taxi driver Mohammad Badra told Al-Monitor … “I would only vote for a politician who offers new job opportunities, and no-one has done that recently.”
For jeweller Omar Namel, the political scene in Lebanon is an “embarrassment” … Lebanon “deserves better than politicians like Saad Hariri, or anyone else”, he told Al-Monitor.6
In the meantime another world power, Russia, is building its own alliance. Within one week the Black Sea resort of Sochi has been host to a summit between Bashar al-Assad of Syria and president Vladimir Putin, and a conference where Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey joined Putin and Assad to discuss the future of Syria and presumably Lebanon.
Every one is fighting over influence and control post-IS, but the reality is that, contrary to claims by general Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, IS remains a danger not just for the countries of the region, but also for the rest of the world. The new instability fuelled by Trump, Macron and all the rest is precisely what IS needs at a time when it has lost 95 % of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.