Saudi move may bolster Hariri

Friday 04/03/2016

As if Lebanon didn’t have enough prob­lems, friction with its oldest ally can be added to its list of woes. Saudi Arabia’s decision to halt a $4 billion arms grant to assist Lebanon battle the Islamic State (ISIS) raised many eyebrows in Beirut and was timed to coincide with what many hope would be the return to Lebanon of former prime minister Saad Hariri.

Hariri’s return to Lebanese politics was garnished by a speech to mark the anniversary of his father’s assassination, a speech that included a formidable attack on Hezbollah, assured his followers that Lebanon would never be part of an Iranian axis and that there was no “middle ground” between the Shia movement and the Leba­nese Army.

His speech was supposed to mark his return to Lebanon after a self-imposed exile since 2011, which many in the Sunni-Christian political bloc March 14 backing him hope will heal rifts and had led some MPs to push for his nemesis, Michel Aoun, to become president.

Yet, what of the news from the Saudis? And is there a link to Hariri’s return to Lebanon?

Much has been made of the Saudis’ resentment of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who, aligned to Hezbollah, has not acknowledged the financial sup­port from Riyadh. This is an exag­gerated and a convenient excuse that hides the truth.

The Saudi news agency state­ment said the kingdom halted the deals because of Lebanon’s “non-condemnation of the blatant at­tacks against the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its Consulate-General in Mashhad, which are contrary to international law and diplomatic norms”. This, too, has only a kernel of truth to it as the real story is stretched over a longer period and represents a geopolitical shift that has been taking place since Russia entered the Syrian battlefield.

A moment of clarity has taken place in Riyadh since the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015 and in September when Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled the lever and sent in his military to save Syrian President Bashar Assad from a certain fall.

The Saudis had an epiphany. Their own defence minister, the youngest in the Arab world, had a wake-up call to exactly what the strength of the kingdom was, given crippling low oil prices and a domestic economy that was eating into cash reserves. An entirely new rationale was required in how the kingdom goes about its business, what it spends given the restraints and who gets a share of its booty. Saudi Arabia simply does not have the money it used to have to spend on weak countries, such as Lebanon, and, given its own crisis, has resorted to call-centre geopoli­tics with a simplified approach to friends and foes: You’re either with us or against us.

But that George W. Bush ap­proach doesn’t work in Lebanon. The case in Beirut is complicated as part of the country is with the House of Saud. But Hezbollah and Iran’s strength and strategic positioning — both in Syria and in relation to Israel — have focused the thinking towards Lebanon. The warning signs were there for any to see as the Saudis have not been paying their bills in Beirut for at least a year.

But now they played an ace by halting funds pledged for the Leba­nese Army, a move announced in the same week as Hariri returned to try to salvage a political bloc that doesn’t need Hezbollah to destroy it when in-fighting seems to be doing an amiable job in itself.

Hariri’s return is designed to repair the opposition coalition and to serve Riyadh in at least blocking Hezbollah’s latest coup de grace in installing Michel Aoun as presi­dent.

The blocking of the defence aid is also a clear message: “We can still make you or break you. Get your act together first before we throw more money into your national military.”

It was also a message to Bassil, who surely will be worrying about the first attack on Lebanese Army positions by extremist groups from Syria and the inevitable kidnap­ping of Lebanese soldiers — made easier due to a cash-strapped national guard.

It’s a political card that the Saudis no doubt will play when anger boils over in Lebanon and they can then blame Hezbollah if it doesn’t prevent those attacks. And blame Hezbollah if it does prevent them as the accusations of behav­ing “like a state within a state” will no doubt resonate. And, of course, blocking the aid serves to bolster Hariri as the only one who can re­store stability in Lebanon and give the army the requirements needed to fight terrorism.

From the Saudis’ perspective, Iran has advanced too much of late in Lebanon and, with Presi­dent Bashar Assad in Syria looking more like a long-term incumbent, something had to give. Like a fuse jumping in an overloaded circuit, the Lebanon one blew. And now it is Hariri who appears to be the only one able to throw the switch and return power to Lebanon.