Mecca summits highlight Lebanon’s precarious position

The posture of Bassil and Hariri is turning Lebanon into a rogue state that has little influence over the issues, while subjecting the country’s crumbling economy to further regional pressures.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Distant. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) attends the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at al-Safa Royal Palace in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, May 31.(AFP)
Distant. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) attends the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at al-Safa Royal Palace in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, May 31.(AFP)

With the US dispatching warships to the Gulf and reinforcing troops in the Middle East, many are envisioning an apocalyptic military showdown between Washington and Tehran and its proxies.

While this outcome is always possible, the United States is more immediately concerned with ensuring that its sanctions against Iran hold strong and that Tehran’s proxies, especially Hezbollah, are contained and challenged across the region.

The Iranian threat was the main subject of an emergency Arab summit May 30 in Mecca. The summit, coming as a direct response to attacks believed perpetrated by Iran-sponsored factions against commercial ships in the UAE port town of Fujairah and oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia, precedes the summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council Gulf and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, also hosted by Saudi Arabia.

For Lebanon, the Mecca summit was a chance to enthusiastically reaffirm its commitment to Arab unity and brotherhood, as well as an opportunity to begin breaking its isolation vis-a-vis Gulf states.

Beirut was represented at the summit by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, accompanied by two cabinet ministers. Predictably, Hariri’s speech was heavily scrutinised by Gulf states, who have grown concerned that he is a willing hostage to, if not outright partner with, Hezbollah.

Hariri offered a lukewarm reaction to the terrorist attacks against the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, although he did declare Lebanon’s full-fledged support to its Arab brethren. Other leading Lebanese figures, including President Michel Aoun, House Speaker Nabih Berri, both allies of Hezbollah, were silent on the matter.

This attitude underscores how many of Lebanon’s political leaders are out of sync with Gulf leaders, putting the country in a precarious spot, given rising tensions.

Aoun, especially, has been loth to support Arab Gulf states. When Lebanon received its invitation to the Mecca summit, Aoun, usually keen to attend international meetings, swiftly delegated the task to Hariri.

Adding insult to injury, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil boycotted the Arab foreign ministers’ preparatory meeting, which generally precedes any Arab summit, sending the message that his resolve and allegiance lay elsewhere.

Even Hariri, a traditional ally of Saudi Arabia, is more distant from the kingdom after falling out with the Saudi administration last year. As a result, he is more reliant on his former political opponents, such as Aoun and Bassil, the president’s ever-ambitious son-in-law.

The Hariri-Bassil alliance, based on financial rather than political considerations, has empowered Hezbollah, which sits in Hariri’s cabinet and lets Bassil run the show.

Bassil and Hariri believe their “good cop-bad cop” routine will protect Lebanon from the fallout of the Sunni-Shia conflict. However, their posture is turning Lebanon into a rogue state that has little influence over the issue, while also subjecting the country’s crumbling economy to further regional pressures.

It is an imprudent strategy, especially because Bassil’s Faustian deal with Hezbollah is fully exposed. Bassil’s continued defence of Hezbollah’s interference in Gulf countries’ affairs reflects his ambitions to climb the political ladder, eventually becoming Lebanon’s president.

Contrary to what many believe, the three Gulf summits were not aimed at preparing for a military conflict but for war of attrition, which could be even more harmful for Iran and its lackeys.

They also come as Arab states braced for the worst — a potential deal between the ever-fickle US President Donald Trump and Iran. This would put Gulf states in a very precarious position, similar to US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

Hariri’s remarks during the summits only paid lip service to his hosts. He has little sway over his political allies, who have wildly different objectives. It is clear, for example, that Hariri’s pledge to keep Lebanon in line with the Arab consensus does not reflect the attitude of Aoun and Bassil, who will do nothing to combat Hezbollah’s activities.

Hariri has effectively relinquished much of his prime ministerial responsibilities, agreeing to be subordinate to Aoun and his political and economic projects. This means Hariri’s words do not carry nearly the same weight to the Saudi administration as his late father’s did.

All of this shows why Lebanon’s economic troubles are likely to continue. Hariri and Lebanon’s political class are hoping to escape economic collapse by adopting an imprudent budget that masks corruption behind a facade of reforms. Real reform can only start with reeling in Hezbollah and reclaiming full sovereignty over the Lebanese state.

It is important to note that the Mecca summits were not merely about Iran but also about Lebanon. It is about addressing the vortex of corruption and instability that has left Lebanon isolated, with not one of its Arab brethren left to come to its rescue.

 

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