Saudi Arabia's last card in Lebanon: Use Israel to strike Hezbollah
In the words of famous Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, Lebanon is a non-country where Christians and Muslims once lived side by side but failed to have a common vision for their homeland. In the Lebanese house of many mansions, as he calls his country, the Christians looked to Europe while the Muslims aspired to remain anchored in a wide Arab nationalist framework.
So the many mansions occasionally fought each other while the idea of Lebanon survived and even flourished under violence, sectarianism and corruption.
With the current crisis that resulted from Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation announced in Riyadh, the many mansions are once again on the verge of being shaken to their foundations.
Writing immediately after the civil war that ravaged the country for 17 years, our dear historian did not anticipate the current Lebanese crisis in which Saudi Arabia and Iran created more mansions to be added to the historical Lebanese ones.
He did not anticipate that Iran will replace Saudi Arabia as the main regional player in a country that has been within the Saudi sphere of influence since the creation of the Arab league after World War II.
Saudiised Sunni Lebanese prime ministers - they have to be Sunni according to the constitution - have always combined their financial interests in Saudi Arabia where they made their fortunes with being prime ministers in Lebanon. They held dual nationality and operated freely in two countries.
Today Lebanese Sunnis plaster pictures of Saudi kings across streets in their neighbourhoods
From Hussein Owayni, Riyad Solh to Rafiq and Saad Harriri, there is a history of finance and politics, and sometimes marriages with senior Saudi princes, cementing a precarious relationship, often controlled by Riyadh for its own purposes, and benefiting Sunni families. The grandfather of Walid bin Talal, now detained, was Lebanese prime minister Riyad Solh.
But above all, such prime ministers were instrumental in defending Saudi political interests in Lebanon. In the 1950s Saudi Arabia feared the Hashemites gaining a hold over the minds of the Lebanese Sunnis and later Egyptian Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Arab nationalism threatening to infiltrate the minds and hearts of the many Saudis who came to study in Lebanon.
When the so-called free Saudi princes (mainly Talal and Mansour bin Abdul-Aziz) gathered at the St George Hotel on the corniche in Beirut in the early 1960s to demand a constitutional monarchy and launch attacks on King Saud and Faisal as stooges of imperialism, the Saudi regime thought that only trouble can come out of Lebanon.
The Saudi strategy
Today this is history but the shift towards Hezbollah is equally threatening to Saudi Arabia. The latter blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the Yemeni Houthi missile that was intercepted in the skies of Riyadh on 4 November.
Saudi Arabia accuses the two of training and arming the Houthis, whom it has been fighting since 2015. Saudi Arabia considered Lebanon as declaring war on it after the missile incident.
Lebanon is one of those places where society and its sectarian mansions has always been stronger than the state
Since the 1950s the Saudi strategy was to promote a Lebanese Sunni bourgeoisie loyal to the Saudis and determined to eradicate nationalist and leftist threats coming from the heart of Beirut.
While the Lebanese Sunni bourgeoisie was co-opted, ordinary Sunnis in Tariq al-Jadidah and Ras Beirut chanted pro-Nasserite slogans and saw themselves as the minaret of Arab nationalism.
Together with the Palestinian refugees, they became synonymous with Beirut al-Wataniyya, nationalist Beirut. When Nasser unexpectedly died in 1970, they flooded the streets and mourned their hero.
Today Lebanese Sunnis plaster pictures of Saudi kings across streets in their neighbourhoods. These counter the portraits of Khomeini, Khamenei and other Iranian figures that decorate the plasterboards and walls in the Shia neighbourhoods.
Against this history of Saudi-Sunni connections, since the 1980s Iran began to consolidate a Shia mansion that had been ignored and marginalised by the Lebanese historical sectarian politics drawn by the French under the mandate, and ravaged by successive Israeli occupations of the south where the majority lived.
Since the 1970s there have been many violent Israeli intrusions that led to impoverishment, expulsions and destruction of towns, villages and agricultural fields. Without Iran’s support to Hezbollah, southern Lebanon would have been most probably still under Israeli occupation.
The collapse of the Hariri mansion
The Sunni bourgeoisie of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli among other cities became vital to Saudi Arabia maintaining its foothold and guarding Lebanon from the excessive Iranian intrusion.
Former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri boosted the confidence of the Sunnis in Lebanon while also building his financial empire in both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Under post-war reconstruction efforts, he emerged as a financial tycoon who wiped out small traders and businessmen in favour of global capitalist intrusion.
Today the famous central Solidaire area is a dying hub of finance and entertainment beyond the means of most Lebanese.
With his assassination in 2005, his son Saad became the face of Sunni power, albeit a declining one in Lebanon. Money earned in Saudi Arabia was translated into philanthropy in Lebanon. Patron-client relations became the core of the Sunni za’amat, leadership, like other sectarian leadership.
Saudi Arabia seems to have lost its historical importance in Lebanon as Iran consolidated its presence there
But since King Salman came to power in 2015, coinciding with a sharp decline in oil prices, the Hariri financial mansion collapsed in Saudi Arabia and the political one began to show serious cracks in Lebanon.
Saudi Oger, Hariri’s flagship company, dismissed many of its employees who were left unpaid. They returned to Lebanon with no prospect of employment in a declining economy. They started selling their million-dollar apartments but there were no buyers on the horizon. The real estate boom collapsed in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia seems to have lost its historical importance in Lebanon as Iran consolidated its presence there.
So the last card Saudi Arabia can play to snub Iran was to summon Saad Hariri, its man in Beirut, to Riyadh where he surprisingly and unexpectedly read his resignation letter on the same night that Mohammed bin Salman started his anti-corruption purge.
The agreement that stabilised Lebanon and led to the election of a president after a vacuum of two years, and the return of Saad Hariri to the premiership is now in jeopardy.
But Lebanon is one of those places where society and its sectarian mansions have always been stronger than the state. It continues to operate without a central power since this central power has no means to provide for citizens any substantial welfare services or economic prosperity, let alone protection against successive Israeli invasions.
Like Palestinians, Lebanon has more Lebanese people in the diaspora than inside the country.
If the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry erupts into violent confrontation of some sort in Lebanon, not only the Lebanese but also thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees will be drawn into such conflict.
A new refugee crisis may be at the doorsteps of Europe again. This should deter any European country from encouraging or becoming complicit in Saudi designs to destabilise the fragile peace between the many Lebanese mansions.
Saudi Arabia will only be able to destabilise Lebanon if it works with Israel, the only country with the military capabilities to threaten Lebanon’s fragile peace
Fortunately EU ambassadors in Lebanon expressed support for the Lebanese state and showed no intention of contributing to a volatile situation by supporting Saudi claims that Lebanon declared war on it.
Saudi Arabia will only be able to destabilise Lebanon if it works with Israel, the only country with the military capabilities to threaten Lebanon’s fragile peace. Will Mohammed bin Salman go as far as striking a deal with Israel in which he offers full normalisation in return for Israel destroying Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon?
This should not be ruled out as the young prince does not seem to think of the consequences of his actions.
If his domestic repression and detention of his own cousins is something to go by, the international community, especially those who will be directly affected by his actions in Lebanon, should work to put pressure on him to restrain his illusions of becoming the master of Arab affairs from the Levant to Aden.
The international community should also show solidarity with Lebanon by pre-emptively condemning any Israel aggression on Lebanon.
- Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C), Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (2nd-L), Caretaker Prime Minister Tamam Salam (C-R) and Hariri (L) sit during an official ceremony commemorating the country's 73rd independence day in Beirut on 22 November 2016 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.