The government of Saudi Arabia announced recently that it is withholding $3 billion in an aid package for the Lebanese army and its security services. In addition, the Saudis scrapped a $1 billion grant to help the Lebanese army and police force fight terrorism. According to The National (United Arab Emirate based) “the grant was announced in August, 2014 just days after the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, Jabhat Al-Nusra, briefly captured the Lebanese border town of Arsal.”
Although one shipment of French arms has been delivered to the Lebanese army in April, 2015, paid for by Saudi Arabia, subsequent deliveries are now doubtful. The reason given by Riyadh was the failure of the Hezbollah dominated government in Beirut to condemn the attack of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Riyadh’s decision came after Lebanon declined to support the Saudi resolutions against Iran during meetings of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
The Saudis understand that with Hezbollah dominating Lebanon, the Lebanese army is simply a tool in the hands of Hezbollah and therefore, will do the bidding of its arch-rival and enemy – Iran. Saad al-Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, urged Saudi Arabia not to abandon Lebanon. To appease the Saudis, Hariri said that Lebanon would “not be a protectorate for Iranian policies in the region.” Hariri added, “We are here to confirm in the loudest voice that nobody will be able to cancel Lebanon’s Arabness.” Hariri blamed Hezbollah and its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) for the Saudi suspension of aid.
The struggling Lebanese economy can ill afford the Saudi suspension of aid. It is a painful pill for Lebanon to swallow. The Financial Times quoted Beirut’s Daily Star as saying,
For anyone in the West who would like to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the dominant issue in the Middle East, he or she may be disabused by reality. That reality is that the Sunni-Muslim vs. Shia-Muslim struggle for dominance in the Muslim world, and their champions, Shia-Iran and Sunni-Saudi Arabia’s rivalry for hegemony in the greater Middle East is, was, and will remain the most critical issue in the region.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards are now in control of four Arab capitals: Baghdad (Iraq), Damascus (Syria), Sanaa (Yemen) and Beirut (Lebanon). The Saudis are the guardians of Islam’s holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, and thus the ostensible leading Sunni state. The Saudis are also the champions of the Arabs vs. the non-Arab Iranians. The rivalry between the Persians (Iranian) and the Arabs is more than a millennium old. Lebanon has become one of the focal points of this conflict.
Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist organization, is currently fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad, the Alawi (offshoot of Shia-Islam) dictator of Syria. The Saudis are backing the Sunni-Muslim leaders and some of the Christian leaders in Lebanon. As a result of the civil war in Syria and the Assad regime butchery of hundreds-of-thousands of Sunni-Syrians, Lebanon has been flooded by Sunni-Syrian refugees who are tipping the delicate demographic and confessional balance. Syrian refugees account for over a quarter of Lebanon’s population. This bodes ill for Hezbollah’s future dominance in the land of the cedars.
According to the Financial Times “Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has specifically accused Riyadh of supporting terror groups inside Syria, ratcheting up already harsh rhetoric against Saudi Arabia.” Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote (June 23, 2014) “At present, there is no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting ISIS. Riyadh views the group as a terrorist organization that poses a direct threat to the kingdom’s security. The Interior Ministry formally designated ISIS as a terrorist entity in March, along with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Muslim Brotherhood, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Saudi Hezbollah. The designation outlawed various forms of support to the group by residents of the kingdom.”
The Iranian-Saudi regional rivalry first escalated when Tehran furnished military and logistical support, including Hezbollah fighters to prop up Assad following the Syrian uprising that devolved into a civil war. Riyadh viewed the Iranian influence as a threat to its own role in the region and the Islamic world. Tehran, which has long possessed leverage in Iraq and Lebanon, saw its international isolation reversed as a result of the nuclear deal struck last July between the five Security Council members (U.S. Russia, Britain, France and China) and Germany. The nuclear deal provided Tehran with a windfall of cash, over $100 billion, which will enhance its influence and Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon.
Once a majority, Lebanon’s Christians have now been relegated to a minority with declining influence. How do the Christian-Lebanese figure into the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia? According to Joseph Hakim, President of the International Christian Union (ICU), and a Lebanese native, “neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia are serious about helping Lebanon function well by electing a long overdue Christian president.” The Lebanese constitution calls for a Christian to serve as Lebanon’s president.
Hakim is cynical about some of Lebanon’s political leaders and their interest in serving the Lebanese people. Their personal interests, he observed, override patriotism. He pointed out that the Lebanese native billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who financed the formation of the IDC (In Defense of Christians) to help the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, is more interested in furthering his oil business than freeing Lebanon from foreign domination. Chagoury has coopted Saad Hariri (Sunni-Muslim, and leader of the Movement of the Future party since 2005, and a protégé of Saudi Arabia), Nabih Berri, (a Shia-Muslim, Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and leader of the Amal Movement, a Shia party) and Walid Jumblatt, (the Lebanese Druze leader, and head of Socialist Progressive party of Lebanon) to share profits from the newly discovered offshore oil, by drafting Suleiman Tony Frangieh, Jr. (a Maronite-Christian) as President of Lebanon. Frangieh, like his late father, is beholden to Syria and Iran, and has been associated with the pro-Hezbollah March 8th coalition.
It is clear that the Lebanese politicians, both Christians and Muslims, have sold out to the highest bidder. The Hariri family made its fortune in Saudi Arabia, and Saad Hariri may pay lip-service to Saudi Arabia, but he is willing (according to Hakim) to support the pro-Syrian (and Iranian) interests in the figure of Frangieh Jr. Michel Aoun, (Maronite-Catholic) former leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, who fought the Syrians in 1989, is now part of the Hezbollah-led March 8th Coalition, and on the side of Syria and Iran.
The Saudis have realized the futility of funding Lebanese enterprises, including the Lebanese army. Riyadh has recognized that weakness of the current U.S. administration, its nuclear deal with Iran, and its passivity in the Syrian conflict, has made Iran the “strong horse” for the time being. To cut their losses, the Saudis have decided to withhold aid from Lebanon.