What next after Saudi measures against Lebanon?

Friday 04/03/2016
Lebanon’s PM Tammam Salam (C) in discussion at floor of Lebanese parliament

The repercussions of punitive measures enacted by Saudi Arabia continue to shake the Lebanese political scene. Riyadh’s announcement that it was halting much-needed aid to the Lebanese army and security apparatus shocked the Lebanese and seemed to come as a surprise to the government, which sought to rectify the situation by issuing a statement confirming its commitment to Arab solidarity.
However, Beirut did not seek to translate this “commitment” into real change, refusing to alter its decision not to support the Arab consensus condemning the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Iran. This is because Lebanon’s official decision-making is subject to a precarious balance based on the nature of its current government, of which Hezbollah forms a key part. Ultimately, any official position taken by the Beirut government must be endorsed by Hezbollah.
Not only did Riyadh halt military and security assistance to Lebanon, it also issued a travel advisory for Saudis not to visit the country, a move that was followed by similar warnings from other Arab Gulf states.
So the questions that the Lebanese people are asking are: What next? What does the future hold for Gulf-Lebanese relations? Will relations decline even further, perhaps to the point that Lebanese expats working in Arab Gulf countries will be forced to return home?
Observers have framed Saudi Arabia’s decisions on Lebanon as strategic, namely using its withdrawal from the country as part of a broader offensive strategy.
This is based on a Gulf conviction that via Hezbollah, Lebanon is firmly under Iranian control. The previous state of consensus between Iran, France and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon, which resulted in the formation of the current government just two years ago, is no longer in effect. It has been overturned by Hezbollah and Iran. Given that state of affairs, Saudi Arabia has taken the prudent decision to withdraw.
But the broader situation must also be taken into account, amid Arab attempts to counteract creeping Iranian influence, not just in Lebanon but in the region. The Syrian conflict cannot be separated from Lebanon, particularly given Hezbollah’s involvement. The same goes for Yemen.
“Enough is enough” is the sentiment being expressed in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab Gulf towards Lebanon. The Saudi decision does not aim to punish the Lebanese but rather push them to take action to confront Iran, which is threatening their independence and their relations with the Arab world.
Claims that Riyadh’s decision was motivated by emotion and could ultimately benefit Hezbollah and Iran are simply incorrect. Saudi Arabia’s decision is a strategic move that aims to restore Lebanon’s traditional Arab role and strengthen those who want to confront Iranian influence in the county.
So, what will happen next? There are three basic scenarios:
First, this could lead to further crisis, with Hezbollah using its political and military power to change the pyramid of power in Lebanon, imposing a new president, prime minister and government that it approves of.
Second, things could stay the same. The crisis will remain within its current bounds without escalation, while Lebanon’s political situation remains in its confused configuration, with the presidential vacuum continuing until it can be resolved by external regional change, perhaps dependent on how the crisis in Syria resolves itself.
Third, change. The Gulf pressure will alter the balance of power in Lebanon and neutralise the threat represented by Iran and Hezbollah, with Hezbollah ultimately realising that its presence in Syria and the region will not succeed.
As for which of these three scenarios will prevail, only time will tell.