Voices from the Arab press: Hezbollah's financial recklessness must end

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

AN ARAMCO employee passes an oil tank at Saudi Aramco’s Ras Tanura oil refinery and terminal in 2018. (photo credit: AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS)
AN ARAMCO employee passes an oil tank at Saudi Aramco’s Ras Tanura oil refinery and terminal in 2018.
Al-Joumhouria, Lebanon, May 7
There has been a lot of talk that what is happening today is an attempt to change the nature of the free economic system in Lebanon and impose some kind of control over the banking sector. The claim is that Hezbollah is behind this move, seeking to consolidate its power by setting facts on the ground.
How true is this assumption? The hypothesis that Hezbollah seeks to change the Lebanese regime is not a matter of conspiracy or libelous accusation, but rather the explicit ideology of the organization. It is repeatedly cited by the party’s senior leadership. Hezbollah’s main goal, on the political and ideological level, is to make Lebanon, according to Hassan Nasrallah’s statement, “not an independent Islamic republic, but a part of the greater Islamic Republic” – that is, a part of Iran.
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with Nasrallah’s ambition. The pursuit of a political goal, even one we strongly disagree with, is not inherently immoral, provided that it doesn’t contradict the democratic and peaceful nature of our country. The problem emerges when the pursuit of this goal inherently subjugates the Lebanese public to the forces of oppression and intimidation, as we are currently witnessing among government opposition forces within Iran.
The discussion here goes back to the economic system. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Hezbollah benefited directly from Lebanon’s capitalist economy, and particularly from the ability to handle its financial matters behind closed doors through private banks. Hezbollah never waged a war on the Lebanese banking system because it needed it in order to survive. However, things took a downturn after US administrations imposed restrictions on banking freedom and decided to dry up Hezbollah’s funds through sanctions.
A case in point was the Hezbollah-linked Jammal Trust Bank, which was forced to close last year because of US sanctions. This is where the confrontation between Hezbollah and the banking sector began emerging. While the Lebanese government is seeking to launch an economic rescue plan backed by the International Monetary Fund, Hezbollah is seeking to protect its financial interests in Lebanon.
Today, I want to say the following: It is simply unacceptable for us Lebanese to bear any costs associated with Hezbollah’s expansionist agenda. The debt we have must not be used in vain to serve Hezbollah’s new military projects. The only way forward is to stop our country’s financial deterioration, restore stolen public money and start a process of economic revival. This cannot be achieved without stopping the political and financial wastefulness imposed by Hezbollah. Otherwise, every penny we save and every dollar we raise from international donors will simply go down the drain in the service of others. – Mustafa Alloush
Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, May 6
While we’re waiting for the coronavirus epidemic to pass, it is also becoming clearer and clearer that what’s next to come is a widespread economic crisis – not merely within Saudi Arabia or the Arab region, but across the world.
Therefore, the interview given by the Saudi finance minister to Saudi television last week did not surprise me, even if I had reservations about its timing. I thought it should have been postponed until the so-called fog of war disappears and things become clearer about what life might look like in the post-corona era. But everything the minister said was expected. The coronavirus crisis alone is enough to stir up the economy, all the more so when it is combined with plunging oil prices.
Saudi Arabia has previously experienced economic crises and limited financial flows. However, it emerged stronger and more resilient from all of them. The financial crisis of the early 1990s, in which King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, may God have mercy on him, was forced to tighten the belt on the economy, resulted in an economic restructuring of the kingdom, which allowed us to emerge from the crisis stronger than we were during the entire previous decade. Similarly, I’m confident that Saudi Arabia will emerge from this crisis within two to three years stronger than we are now, especially given our robust political alliances and our strong stance in the global economy.
Indeed, the tools at Saudi Arabia’s disposal are ones that very few countries have. Yes, oil prices are very low. But part of our government’s vision over the past few years has been to diversify the sources of income in our economy in a way that doesn’t make us overly dependent on oil. It goes without saying that while crises of this sort are never easy, they also have hidden opportunities within. This is a chance for Saudi Arabia to correct some of its errors and reevaluate its path forward.
Yes, we need to tighten the belt and address this crisis using potentially painful solutions. But there is absolutely no doubt that we will come out victorious from this crisis and look back at 2020 as a pivotal year that made the kingdom’s economy stronger than ever before. – Muhammad Al-Sheikh
Nida Al-Watan, Lebanon, May 6
If we take a step back and look past the noise generated by Lebanese politicians, we will quickly see that behind the headlines are hundreds of Lebanese doctors, nurses, teachers, administrators and diplomats who are tirelessly working for their country. Unlike their political leaders, these individuals are rarely thanked. They are forgotten and ignored during the coronavirus epidemic. While ministers and parliamentarians fight for credit and political power, these men and women carry out their diligent work behind the scenes. What they’re doing is worth a million times more than the statements made by their leaders, the so called excellencies in suits.
For the anonymous heroes, the task of fighting the coronavirus is far from over. Think of the doctors and nurses working around the clock in hospitals and clinics across the country. Think of the Lebanese diplomats, spread in dozens of embassies and consulates around the world, who work day and night to bring home Lebanese citizens stuck abroad. In the past few weeks, they led one of the largest repatriation operations conducted in Lebanese history.
All of these forces have come together in service of the Lebanese people. They have done so not in the name of prestige or honor, but in the name of service. As someone who has witnessed their work from up close, I applaud the ordinary people of Lebanon – the bureaucrats, administrators and ordinary frontline workers – who altruistically serve others without the hope of ever being thanked or acknowledged. They’re the true heroes of Lebanon. – Tony Francis
Asharq Al-Awsat, London, May 8
When evaluating who has more power, the president of the Syrian Republic or the CEO of the country’s largest telecommunications provider, the answer is almost certainly the former.
This is true even when the CEO happens to be the president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who surprised all observers of Syrian politics last week when he issued two videos in which he called to end Assad’s regime. Makhlouf’s videos found a large and attentive viewership around the world.
The truth is that domestically, most citizens couldn’t care less about the battle for power between the two cousins. Most Syrians are currently home, glued to their screens, consuming hours of Ramadan television shows. Not even the coronavirus situation has succeeded in making them abandon the drama series that are produced in their country each year during this holy month. In this context, Rami Makhlouf’s videos, dramatic as they may be, haven’t succeeded in garnering a wide following inside Syria.
The key to understanding the future of this dispute between the two cousins is to determine whether it is happening on financial or political grounds. If Makhlouf is picking a fight with Assad over money, then things can be sorted out rather quickly between the two cousins. However, if the fight is ideological, we’re likely to see a much longer war waged against the Syrian president, which Assad is most likely to win.
It is important to note that many eyes are glued to Damascus as a result of this battle. The situation in Syria is crucial not only for the stability of the region, but also for the greater proxy war unfolding between the United States and Russia. Almost every player in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, would be affected by a change of power in Damascus. The next few weeks will reveal which of the two battles this is, and whether we’re in for a temporary squabble or a long-term proxy war between two camps and their clashing world views. – Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed
Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.