If you know anything about political relations within the Middle East, you know they are a hot mess. Nowhere is this as exemplified as in the political battlefield that is Lebanon. This small country represents everything good and everything bad of the Middle East as it finds itself again to be the arena for the power plays of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major powers in the region. Recent events have commentators worried about its fragile stability.
Indeed, things changed. On November 3rd, Prime Minister Hariri had flown to Saudi Arabia for regular business, as he said to his office. The day after, he appeared on Saudi television to announce his resignation, citing an assassination plot allegedly planned by Iran. This came as a complete shock to everybody, including the Lebanese government. Apparently, there had been no indication that Hariri intended to abdicate when he left for Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. After the fact, Hezbollah promptly accused Saudi Arabia to be essentially declaring war on Lebanon. For a short while, things looked dire and escalation into warfare seemed to loom on the horizon. And then, on November 22nd, after Hariri had returned to Lebanon, he suspended his resignation. According to him, the Shi’a Speaker of Parliament had asked him to stay for the sake of internal stability. Hezbollah, being Shi’a, affirmed their acknowledgement of Hariri’s government and said it sought no further escalation. The immediate reaction of the Lebanese Shia party declaration cannot be properly understood if the international entanglement of Lebanon is not considered. The events surrounding the resignation are the last episode of a proxy conflict that occurs between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the hegemony of the entire region, from Egypt to Afghanistan. The Syrian civil war and the Yemeni crisis are some of the most important examples encompassed in that struggle. Riyadh and Teheran represent the two opposite images of an area full of contradictions and ambiguity of which colonialists had been trying to take advantage since 1917 and the Balfour declaration. On one side, Iran is an old state, with a centuries-old, rich history and its own language, Farsi. It is the political embodiment of the Shia groups throughout the Middle East. After decades of strategical relations with the United Kingdom and the United States for the management of oil sources, and after its own Islamic Revolution in 1979, Moscow has begun approaching Teheran and is now its closest ally, thus giving Russia a direct outlet to the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a relatively young state. Less than a century ago, warring tribes were still spilling blood within today’s borders. Cunning moves by the British government let the Saudi tribe conquer and rule the entire region at the cost of heavy concessions at the Gulf shore. Representing the most conservative Sunni tradition in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has gradually moved under American influence and still conveys US interests against the Iranian, and thus, Russian, ambitions. We can see, that even this global conflict manifests itself in the Middle East. Although the Saudi-Iranian conflict involves several actors, if not the whole Middle East, the core of the question remains circumscribed to the Persian Gulf and its natural sources. Controlling the Gulf means managing the flows of resources to China, India and the Atlantic itself.
So why has Lebanon been dragged into this competition? Looking at its political geography and structure reveals the answer. Firstly, Lebanon is a natural bridge linking the Arab World to the Mediterranean Sea, which means that even European countries such as France and Britain -old colonial powers of the Middle East- may channel their interests through the small country. Secondly, Lebanon and Syria share the same religious and cultural melting pot; indeed, Christians, Sunnis, Shias and other religious minorities have always coexisted in this region. These different groups, however, soon became “factions” as Western powers manipulated their dynamics according to the old divide et impera strategy in the colonial age after the First World War. While the Syrian equilibrium between social groups soon crumbled in 1980 with the rise of the Al-Assad family, Lebanon had found a more stable arrangement which rested on the principle of representation. Thus, Maronite Christians have been granted the Presidency of the Republic, Sunnis the Prime Ministry and Shi’as the Parliamentary Presidency. The element that tends to break this fragile balance, nevertheless, is Hezbollah. First established in 1982 as a Shi’a militia, it subsequently became the main political Shi’a party in Lebanon and now receives support and financial aids directly from Teheran, making its ranks better equipped and more effective than the regular Lebanese army. This tense imbalance is probably the main cause that has led Saudi Arabia to counterattack such menace in an attempt to block the growth of Iranian presence in the country. Whether this heavy meddling will play in its favour or not, however, remains to be seen. A quick but closer look to what happened in Saudi Arabia in the last month could also be helpful to understand the timing of this political move. On Saturday 4th the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (Mbs), the 32-year-old son of present King Salman and head of the Defence Ministry, arrested more than thirteen princes, four ministers and tens of former officials, in an attempt to weaken possible oppositions to his succession within the royal administration and give evidence of his political strength and his long-term ambitions. The possibility that the Lebanese coup had been a move promoted by Prince bin Salman himself to give a message of poise towards the regional conflictual issues is a shared convictions among experts. In actual facts, the Prince had already sent a quite clear message as far as the internal polity is concerned: in June, together with King Salman, he managed to make Mohammad bin Nayef, Mbs’ older cousin, turn down his aspirations to the throne. Furthermore, Prince bin Salman has put the basis for what will likely be the most fundamental reform in the Saudi history: “Vision 2030”. Its reform programme aims at turn the economical and political system of Saudi Arabia, based on cooptation and clientelism into a more liberal one, where meritocracy and competitiveness could overcome traditional religious and tribal values. Whether the King and the Prince will be able to achieve their objectives, it is sure that the international arena is observing with increasing attention their strategy inside and outside the Saudi state and are ready to react, as the case of France has shown. Following Hariri’s resignation, French President Emmanuel Macron volunteered to mediate between all parties involved. As the former colonial power, France assumes a supporting role for the Lebanese state, while also taking the EU’s interests into account. Due to its geographical location, Lebanon is deeply involved in the Syrian refugee crisis. Should there be an escalation in Lebanon, a new wave of refugees might arrive at Europe’s borders; something all EU leaders want to avoid desperately. Macron now needs to balance between his support for the Lebanese state and the interests of the major regional power Saudi Arabia – a state the EU has more positive relations to than Iran. This most probably is a welcome opportunity for Macron to prove and establish his foreign policy skills. So, what will happen next? No one can tell, but the crisis has most likely not reached its zenith yet. Saudi Arabia may involve Israel to combat Hezbollah, both of whom despise each other with incomparable intensity. But apart from Saudi Arabia’s new and impulsive leadership, it seems like no one seeks new conflict in Lebanon. Ali Fadlallah, an expert on international law for the journal Al-Monitor, recently stated: “In the first few days of Hariri’s resignation, there was truly a fear of internal strife. However, the unity showed by the various political blocs over the priority for Hariri to return and the calm management of the crisis showed otherwise”. We will see how Riyadh will handle Hariri’s apparent defiance.