international analysis and commentary

Lebanon, the Saudi-Iranian clash and Europe’s role


The Syrian conflict has further unsettled the precarious balance of power in the Middle East in a way no Western country can handle and, to date, there is no ground for an international military intervention that could rapidly end the crisis. Meanwhile, American interest in the region has waned and the Obama administration prefers leaving its European allies in the driver’s seat. The 2011 international intervention in Libya is a meaningful example of this attitude.

American disengagement has opened a vacuum that the major Arab regional players and some EU member states are attempting to fill. That’s why the impact of the new pragmatic cooperation between France and Saudi Arabia in Lebanese politics is an important development.

The international community seems well aware of the importance of a stable Lebanon: there is a total of $600 million in international development projects on the table awaiting approval from the newly-elected Lebanese government. More than $200 million are coming from France. Another important economic deal directly involves both France and Saudi Arabia’s interests in Lebanon: an arms deal worth $3 billion in French weaponry paid for by a donation from Saudi Arabia.

This is meant to enable the Lebanese army to deal with terrorist groups crossing its borders. The deal is therefore presented as conducive to regional stability and as part of the ongoing battle to stop Al-Qaeda’s proxies. From a Saudi point of view any Shiite presence in the region is a direct threat linked to Iran and to its bid for regional influence; thus, Saudi funding of this arms purchase may well raise eyebrows within Hezbollah (the Party of God which controls the Southern chunk of Lebanon’s territory bordering Israel).

In fact, Lebanon represents an insidious ground. It is a confessional state where the stability of the government depends on the fragile balance between the different cultural and religious components of Lebanese society – including the Shiite political party-cum-militia Hezbollah. Recent clashes in southern Beirut, in the Lebanese city of Tripoli and in the Golan Heights at the border with Syria have been perceived as retaliation against Hezbollah’s support of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Under the arms deal, Saudi Arabia would provide the money and Lebanon would choose what type of weaponry its army needs from France. Saudi Arabia has often promised money to neighboring countries (like Oman and Bahrein) to consolidate its grip while ultimately not delivering. The deal seems to be going through according to statements issued after several meetings of the International Support Group for Lebanon, which recently met in Paris.

Reading between the lines of Lebanese politics, we can assume at this point that civil war is still not an immediate risk: the country’s recent history still looms in people’s memories and clearly nobody wants an open conflict (including Hezbollah) – especially one that could also turn into a heavily lopsided confrontation with Israel in case Hezbollah were to gain the upper hand against government forces. However, news of the arms deal adds to the sense that trouble is in the air.

Due to regional instability, the Lebanese economy is shrinking. The tourism sector, which despite longstanding instability accounted for 40% of its GDP, has dropped by half in the last three years. The neighboring conflict in Syria has scared away both European and Gulf tourists to an extent that not even the last war with Israel had done. Lebanese public debt still accounts for 140% of its GDP, as a long-term legacy of the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. While the Ministry of Tourism claims that 70% of Lebanese territory has been completely secure for more than a decade, even the brand new Solidere business center in the fashionable re-built central Beirut is suffering economically.

French investments in the Lebanese economy are good news, indeed. However, using badly needed resources to take sides in the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not. European countries have other instruments to promote investment and growth without ripping the fabric of Lebanese society. For instance, part of the budget of the European Neighborhood Policy for Lebanon could also be spent in the poorest Sunni areas of Lebanon, and not only in the mostly Shiite areas affected by the 2006 conflict with Israel. Such a policy wouldn’t be perceived as an open provocation aimed at Hezbollah (which Saudi Arabia firmly identifies as a Shiite militia merely preparing to wreak havoc in Lebanon to serve Iranian interests in the region) and would benefit wider components of the Lebanese society.

The regional landscape has deeply changed in the last few years. Long rooted monarchies, like Saudi Arabia itself, are likely to experience some degree of change due to a generational gap in their leadership in the face of modernity, including new economic and social demands from their people. The Saudi regime is becoming more and more frustrated with the new course of American foreign policy, and with increasing frequency anonymous sources within the kingdom are voicing their fear of a rapprochement between the US and Iran.

If Saudi Arabia aims to secure a more active role in the region, Europe should use its expertise and influence to keep all existing political actors on board, and discourage any open confrontation between the Kingdom and the Party of God. What is at stake is the risk of more refugees and political unrest. An escalating Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran (partly carried out in Lebanon) would result in a huge setback of all European diplomatic efforts – not only with Iran on the nuclear security issue, but also in the promotion of stability in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.