Can Lebanon get back on track? - opinion

For Lebanon, dominated by Iran’s proxy but seeking to mend fences with the Sunni Arab world, the way out of the economic, security and diplomatic forest will be long and difficult.

 Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh speaks during a news conference at Central Bank in Beirut, Lebanon, November 11, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR/FILE PHOTO)
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh speaks during a news conference at Central Bank in Beirut, Lebanon, November 11, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR/FILE PHOTO)

The good news is that a two month truce between the warring parties in Yemen, brokered by the United Nations, went into effect on April 2. At last, there is some hope of relieving the humanitarian disaster that has overwhelmed the Yemeni people. The issues that led to the conflict, however, remain unresolved.

The bad news, from Lebanon’s point of view, is that the truce will do nothing to solve the political dilemma facing the country, caught as it is between a rock and a hard place. Its weak and vacillating government finds itself trapped between two warring and irreconcilable forces, Iran and Saudi Arabia – the one supporting the Houthis in Yemen, the other battling to defeat them.

Lebanon’s situation is exacerbated by the dire state of its economy. The Lebanese lira has lost more than 90% of its pre-crisis value, and this has led to soaring inflation and widespread hardship. It is estimated that some 80% of Lebanon’s population now live in poverty. Gasoline stations have run dry, medicine and many basic foods are in short supply, and critical social infrastructure is shutting down.

In 2008, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) boosted the Lebanese economy with a massive loan. In 2020, in the face of a financial system spiralling out of control, the government again appealed to the IMF for help. A rescue plan was approved by the majority parties in parliament.

Then a parliamentary committee, supported by the Banque du Liban and the other Lebanese banks, advocated a diametrically opposite approach, on the grounds that it was defending the interests of depositors. It was clear to the IMF that administrative reforms were needed before necessary economic measures could be implemented.

 POSTERS DEPICT the Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian leaders near the Lebanese-Syrian border. How can we ignore that Russia allows attacks against targets of Iran and its proxies in Syria? (credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS) POSTERS DEPICT the Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian leaders near the Lebanese-Syrian border. How can we ignore that Russia allows attacks against targets of Iran and its proxies in Syria? (credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

It is against this background that Lebanon’s political dilemma is being played out. Iran-backed Hezbollah is so entrenched in the country’s institutions that it would require close to a revolution to dislodge it. Moreover, the nation’s ruling cliques have been infiltrated by Hezbollah and its allies. Lebanon’s current difficulties stem from comments made by Information Minister George Kordahi in October, criticizing Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict in Yemen.

In 2011, Yemen President Ali Abdallah Saleh, a victim of the so-called Arab Spring, gave up the keys of office with a very bad grace. He allied himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to maneuver his way back to power. Supported with military hardware from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Houthis overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian Peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to help beat them back. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels. Civilian casualties were high and Yemen degenerated into a humanitarian disaster area. Seven years later, both parties remain entrenched in various parts of Yemen.

APPEARING ON an Al Jazeera TV show in October, Kordahi was asked his views of the war in Yemen. Mirroring the Iranian point of view, he said the Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-led coalition were acting in self-defense. “They are defending themselves against external attacks launched for years against Yemen.”

In subsequent media conferences, Kordahi refused to apologize. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were outraged. Saudi expelled Lebanon’s ambassador and said it was ending all imports from the country. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain followed suit and recalled their ambassadors.

Saudi Arabia and its fellow wealthy neighbors once spent billions of dollars in aid in Lebanon and still host a huge Lebanese diaspora. But, the friendship has been strained for years by the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The powerful Iranian-backed Shia movement, which has come to dominate Lebanon‘s political and economic establishment, represents a vital building block in Iran’s bid to dominate the region. Hezbollah and its allies are integrated into the ruling elites, which are mired in venality, corruption and self-interest. Arab News recently warned that their unwillingness to put Lebanon’s interests ahead of their own could destroy the nation.

A major issue uniting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is their determination to thwart Iran’s effort to undermine and overturn Sunni Muslim states, acquire a nuclear arsenal and dominate the Middle East. In this they are at one with Israel, which is also the object of Iran’s visceral hatred. The Abraham Accords, which may yet be expanded, is a sign of their common purpose.

Despite Iran’s strong influence within Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, ministers have tried hard to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Very recently, one green shoot has appeared. On March 19, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati visited Doha Forum in Qatar, met the emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, and discussed ties between Lebanon and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

In a press conference later, Mikati said: “Lebanon is meant to always have excellent relations with the Arab countries and the Gulf States. Lebanon is one of the founders of the Arab League and we strongly believe in such ties.”

Speaking about Lebanon’s diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Mikati stressed: “It was a summer cloud that passed. God willing, it will entirely fade out with the visits that I will make to the Arab countries, and with the restoration of diplomatic ties between Lebanon and the Gulf States. We need these ties, especially with Saudi Arabia.”

On March 22, the Saudi ministry welcomed Mikati’s statement and said it hoped it would “contribute to the restoration of Lebanon’s role and status on the Arab and international levels.”

It was a first step, but for Lebanon, dominated by Iran’s proxy but seeking to mend fences with the Sunni Arab world, the way out of the forest will be long and difficult.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.