It seems that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has enough friends to escape being cast into exile. Led by French President Emmanuel Macron (who had to fly to Saudi Arabia to secure the prime minister’s exit from the kingdom) and with the support of the United States, Hariri managed not only to escape the clutches of Saudi Arabia and return to Lebanon via France but also to renege on his forced resignation until further notice. The stability of Lebanon at this stage was too important for the Europeans and the United States to have Hariri remain a Saudi “domestic issue.” To them, the fall of the Lebanese government due to “unduly Iranian influence” and the political and security repercussions that this may have carried were unacceptable, particularly as Lebanon faces a host of challenges, including the effects of the Syrian war, namely the refugee crisis.
Indeed, domestic actors played a key role in containing the crisis. President Michel Aoun’s rejection of Hariri’s resignation on 4 November bought enough time for local and international actors to react to the Saudi move. Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah carefully navigated through the political minefield that was set up for his party by calling for Hariri’s return and not escalating the situation. Furthermore, Hizballah seems to be responding to Hariri’s concerns, at least cosmetically. In his last speech, Nasrallah claimed victory over the Islamic State to please his own constituency but also tried to calm Arab leaders’ anger stemming from Hizballah’s military ventures. In response to the Arab League’s accusation that Hizballah is a “terrorist” organization that interferes in Arab countries’ affairs, he insinuated that the party’s intervention in Iraq and Syria is, in any case, coming to an end. Regarding Yemen, Nasrallah denied that Hizballah has any military presence there, in an attempt to undermine Saudi Arabia’s accusations that they were behind the missile that was launched at Riyadh on 4 November. In this way, he eased the path by which Hariri could reassume the duties of prime minister and re-enter political life.
In fact, it is precisely the alignment of regional and domestic interests that has kept Lebanon politically stable since 2005. Despite domestic polarization between 8 March and 14 March throughout this period, the governing political parties had too much at stake, politically and economically, to topple it, even when they vehemently disagreed. Power is distributed more equally across the three main sectarian groups in the post-Taif era and their wealth in the real estate and banking sectors is also distributed more widely than it was during the pre-war years. In effect, this makes any local conflict too costly for all key actors.
Nevertheless, the security and relative stability on which these disparate interests rest are only one side of the coin. While the country’s political leadership has gone out of its way to contain conflicts and has even collaborated to face outside challengers, be they militant groups (such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Islamic State) or civil society (such as independent electoral initiatives or the Teachers’ Association), that same leadership has failed to deliver public services to their own citizens.
Add to this a regional understanding, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to shield Lebanon from regional conflicts. For Tehran, Lebanon must remain calm to secure Hizballah in its regional adventures, while Riyadh has invested considerably in Lebanon but their influence has limits, a realization laid bare in May 2008.
These factors explain why Hariri’s forced resignation “violated” this implicit understanding and threatened to destabilize the country. The unexpected change of policy in the new Saudi leadership raised alarm in many capitals. A full removal of Hariri may have entailed a series of actions that would prove particularly detrimental to the country’s stability. While the Saudi camp aimed to expose Hizballah, others, including France, Germany, Egypt, and even the US State Department saw this as a recipe for instability. In light of this, France, with Egypt’s support, managed to temporarily restore the political understanding that was in place.
While Hariri’s return has averted an impending political crisis, it has not fundamentally changed the rules of the game. Lebanon’s sovereignty remains under the control of foreign powers. Local political leaders facilitated his return but his dismissal and reinstatement were fundamentally determined by foreign powers. There is apparent convergence between Hizballah and Aoun regarding Hariri, but a lack of clarity remains regarding how the country will move forward given the Saudi demands.
The key question is the extent to which the Saudis are in agreement with Hariri reneging on his resignation. While it is evident that they have overplayed their card, Riyadh could claim to have shaken up the system in their favor under the logic that had they not prompted Hariri’s resignation, Lebanon would have fallen completely into Iran’s arms. After all, Hariri made the adoption of the “disassociation policy” a precondition for his return. Alternatively, the Saudis could be planning to escalate the situation further, with speculation focusing on the use of military or economic measures. If so, such moves will have grave consequences for all of Lebanon and the region and run the risk of hurting Hizballah least in relative terms.
While there are ongoing threats of a military attack by Israel on Hizballah, this is unlikely because such a move would run the risk of sparking conflict beyond Lebanon’s borders. At the least, it seems likely that Syria would also find itself in the field of battle, not the least because Hizballah fighters are stationed there along with the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi. Houthis may also escalate attacks on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, sparking a regional war. In other words, such a conflict may extend well beyond Lebanon’s borders and see non-Lebanese actors become directly involved in military action.
An alternative to military action would be economic warfare targeting Lebanon. Saudi investments, grants, imports, and tourists have declined over the last five years but economic sanctions would cause considerably more damage to the national economy, especially if other GCC countries join such an effort. Such punitive action would not only reduce Lebanon’s economic growth but would also affect investor confidence in the country. Saudi Arabia‘s Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir’s statement that Lebanon’s “banking sector is controlled by Hizballah” could be interpreted as an implicit threat against the country’s financial and monetary sector. In effect, measures targeting Lebanese banks would increase the government’s cost of borrowing, making public spending—which is already high—unsustainable. Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia’s threat leads to a reduction in remittances, which are estimated to total about two billion dollars to 2.5 billion dollars, this would take a serious toll on the country’s macroeconomic health, including the currency.
Let us be clear. At this juncture, the aforementioned matters remain speculative in nature. Nevertheless, this brief exercise demonstrates that if such policies were implemented, they would serve to hurt Lebanese from all sects and particularly the poor. In the case of a currency devaluation, all those whose income and savings are denominated in Lebanese pounds would be affected, including public sector employees and security forces. This could even undermine the state and the ability of the security sector to do their job.
The irony of this doomsday scenario is that Hizballah would likely emerge less damaged than other Lebanese actors, as they are less dependent on the state for public services or public sector jobs. Organizations that serve Hizballah’s constituents would be able to better withstand the pressure as they may also expand their influence through service delivery apart from the state.
Recent attempts to put pressure on Hizballah have backfired. Attempts to impose economic pressure may in fact strengthen the very group that Saudis are trying to weaken the most. Pushing the country off the cliff will hardly bring any benefits. On the contrary, it could serve to exacerbate extremism and lead to chaos or possibly increase Iranian influence in the halls of power in Beirut.
[This article was originally published on the website of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS)]