Lebanon has adopted a policy of insulation from regional conflicts since 2013, in an attempt to disassociate itself from Syrian war next door. But for the small Levantine country that has struggled with years of political instability and economic hardship, which has deepened with the neighbouring war, it hasn’t been easy to sit back and watch.
For decades, Lebanon has been a proxy battleground for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran manifests its influence through a powerful Shia political party and militant group, Hezbollah, which emerged in 1985 as a response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has enjoyed close historic, economic and political relations with the Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s family for decades and has dedicated itself to curbing the Iranian influence in the country. Hariri’s father Rafik Hariri, who was the former prime minister, was assassinated in 2005. The Hariri family and Sunni groups in the country blamed Hezbollah, saying that he was targeted because of his opposition to Syria’s control over Lebanon.
After nine years of political turmoil, the country’s first parliamentary election was held last year in May. According to the Lebanese political system, executive and legislative power-sharing is based on the country’s ethno-religious map, which can be argued is designed to result in political deadlocks. It took eight months to form a government after rival factions finally agreed to form a unity cabinet.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and Founder of Gulf State Analytics told TRT World that the proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a point in which Saudi Arabia and other Arab states distanced themselves from Lebanon.
They concluded that “the Mediterranean country has come under excessive Iranian influence and that Hezbollah has gained too much power in its security architecture”, he said.
With the financial hardship and political deadlock that continued after the elections, however, Saudi Arabia proved it is not pulling out from Lebanon. The Saudi Kingdom said in January that it pledged full support to Lebanon’s economy less than a day after Qatar pledged to buy government bonds worth $500 million.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a visit to Lebanon on February 10 with an offer that Tehran is ready to assist the US-backed Lebanese army, if Lebanon’s government wants it.
“Foreign Minister Zarif's move was intended to counter Washington and Riyadh while further strengthening the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Cafiero said, adding that Iran’s offer to the Lebanese officials is deeply unsettling to the Saudi leadership.
But Cafiero doesn’t see much reason for optimism despite Riyadh’s move to keep its influence in the region.
“Given the extent to which Saudi influence in Lebanon has declined in recent years, especially after the prime minister's saga in the Kingdom in 2017, it does not appear clear what the Saudis can do to push back against Iranian influence in Lebanon,” he said.
The next day, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced in a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart that Lebanon won’t be participating in a Middle East conference in Poland, which Iran denounced as being an “anti-Iran circus”. The conference, which is set for February 13 in Warsaw, will be hosted by the US and 80 other countries.
During his visit, Zarif also met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and renewed Tehran’s decades-long support for the group. With Iranian support, Hezbollah proved it could gain even more power, winning a majority of seats in the parliament together with its allies in the country’s elections.
In November 2017, the Lebanese prime minister abruptly announced his resignation, blaming Iran for stoking tensions in the region during a visit to Saudi Arabia, mounting fears that he was forced to make the decision under pressure from Riyadh.
"I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries," Hariri said while announcing his resignation.
On the same day, the Saudi crown prince led a crackdown on dozens of Saudi royals, detaining them in a “corruption probe”.
The Saudi pressure backfired.
In an unpleasant turn for Saudi Arabia, Hariri suspended his resignation upon his return to Lebanon later the same month and emerged more popular than ever. The incident also empowered Hezbollah. Hariri’s relationship with Riyadh didn’t seem to be permanently damaged as the prime minister later shared a selfie with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to show the relationship was intact.
Cafiero says the latest developments, Saudi pledging help to Lebanon on one hand, Iran making sure that its influence is not interrupted on the another, shows that Lebanon appears to be turning into one of the brightest flashpoints in the Iranian-Saudi geo-sectarian rivalry.
He added: ‘The dangers for the Lebanese is the risk of them not proving capable of continuing to effectively insulate their country from the region's geopolitical instability and ongoing armed conflicts.”