Iran stands to lose the most in the near future, but Saudi Arabia won't be far behind as protesters across the Arab world demand an end to foreign interference in internal affairs.
As Lebanon’s government teeters on the brink of collapse amid a period of uncertainty, officials in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have been in no rush to bail out the small Mediterranean country.
Some Gulf states’ leaders hope that Hezbollah, which is being pushed further into a corner, will be the biggest loser as a result of this unrest. Thus, despite their history of being extremely influential in Beirut, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been mostly silent over Lebanon’s state of affairs since mid-October.
In Saudi Arabia there is quite a bit of hope that Hezbollah will lose the support that it previously earned among Lebanese citizens, including those in Shia communities, especially if the group appears “counter-revolutionary”.
Anti-government demonstrations which have shaken Lebanese cities (Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, Baalbek, etc.) and Iraq have posed a major threat to Iranian interests and its influence in the Arab world. Although it's entirely inaccurate to state that sectarianism or hatred for Iran were the drivers of these protests, resentment toward Tehran’s heavy hand in Lebanon and Iraq have been articulated by certain elements in this wave of uprisings.
Naturally, the Islamic Republic’s leadership has been anxious while watching these demonstrations continue as these uprisings move both countries into unchartered territory.
Officials in Tehran also fear that Lebanon and Iraq’s protestors could possibly stoke similar unrest in Iran, where corruption and other governance-related problems have also mobilised street demonstrators in the past, dating back to the Shah’s era and continuing after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have long seen Lebanon as somewhat of a lost cause to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Viewing Hezbollah as an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group, officials in the Gulf region have long complained that financial support to the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri amounted to support for Hezbollah.
Omar Mohamed, a renowned Bahraini security analyst, once articulated the view on Hezbollah that is often expressed in the GCC: “For the Gulf states, they are not getting anything back in return for all their investments and generosity towards [Lebanon], you just keep hearing [Secretary General] Nasrallah threatening the Gulf all the time with death chants to different members of the royal families in his speeches.”
Indeed, in the GCC there has been widespread disappointment over Hariri (himself a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen) based on the perception that he failed to sufficiently check Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon.
Within this context, Hariri’s efforts to secure a cash injection from the Emiratis during his visit to Abu Dhabi last month (of course before the “WhatsApp revolution” and his resignation last month) proved futile.
Officials in some Gulf states are more than happy to see Hezbollah come under growing financial strains as a result of US sanctions on the group as well as Iran. With Hezbollah facing the unprecedented crisis of Shia protestors voicing their frustrations with Nasrallah, officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE hope that the uprising results in the influence of Iran being curbed in Lebanon.
Indeed, considering how much political capital Tehran has invested in Lebanon, the Saudis may have good reason to be optimistic about the Mediterranean country’s current situation weakening Iran’s hand in the Arab world.
Riyadh has a long record of withholding aid to cash-strapped Lebanon during the periods in which Saudi Arabia believed that Hezbollah could have benefitted the most from the Kingdom’s support for Beirut. Most likely, Riyadh’s bet is that bailing out Lebanon with cash right now risks strengthening Hezbollah’s hand, thus it is wiser for Saudi Arabia to not support the Lebanese economy.
That said, it would be misguided to conclude that the uprising in Lebanon represents no threat to Saudi Arabia’s regional agendas and interests. Depending on what emerges from Lebanon’s wave of protests, the outcome may result in Saudi Arabia (along with others in the region) losing substantial influence in Beirut, especially if a pan-sectarian movement can push back against all forms of external interference in Lebanese affairs.
Moreover, officials in Riyadh are always fearful of how grassroots, bottom-up, social justice-driven movements in any Arab country can inspire other societies in the region to rise up against their corrupt and oligarchic regimes.
The fact that grievances on the part of protestors in Lebanon are similar to those of their counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, etc., the Saudi leadership must be nervous about what an “Arab Spring 2.0” could do the region throughout the remainder of this year and well into 2020.
Ultimately, authorities in Saudi Arabia see Lebanon’s wave of unrest as representing both opportunities and risks. For now, the odds are good that Riyadh will continue to stand by and remain relatively quiet as events evolve in ways that no one can predict.
While hedging their bets, governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other regional capitals will hope that the changes which Lebanon is currently undergoing will ultimately result in Iranian prestige being struck a blow and Hezbollah’s power being reduced.
For years Saudi Arabia has been going on the defensive in Lebanon and other Arab states with Tehran appearing to effectively shore up its strong positions in these countries. Therefore, Riyadh is glad to see the fluid situation in Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere threaten regional gains that the Islamic Republic has achieved mainly as a result of Washington and Riyadh’s countless strategic blunders from the invasion of Iraq to the war in Yemen and failed efforts to topple the Syrian government.
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