Simmering tension between the governments of tiny Lebanon (pop. 6m), the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, and regional super power Saudi Arabia (pop. 32m) has escalated recently, worsening the already bad security situation across the region.
On Nov. 4, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a longtime beneficiary of Saudi support, astonished many after vanishing two weeks earlier and then announcing his resignation while in Saudi Arabia.
Concurrently, Saudi Arabia’s emboldened Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his purge of anyone who might question his leadership, including eleven princes and four ministers.
Al-Hariri’s jet on landing in Riyadh was reportedly surrounded by Saudi police. Lebanese political leaders ascribe his abrupt decision to quit as yielding to pressure from Riyadh while under house arrest.
Al-Hariri, however, insists the resignation was prompted by an assassination plot (His respected father, Rafik, also a Lebanese prime minister, was assassinated in 2005 in Beirut.) and accused Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife across the region.
Many noted that the Saudis were upset by al-Hariri’s failure to wean his government away from Hezbollah, a militant Shia political organization and militia created and backed by Iran’s regime.
Prince Salman is pursuing both an aggressive Yemen policy and the ongoing blockade of Qatar. Samia Nakhoul of Reuters News wrote that many Lebanese fear Saudi Arabia will do to Lebanon what it did to Qatar and “pressure its Arab allies to enforce an economic blockade until its demands are met. The 400,000 Lebanese who work in the Gulf region generate US$8 billion annually in remittances that account for 20 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.”
There is also the question of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees. The official number is one million, but the UNHCR stopped counting in 2015. Many believe it is now closer to 1.5 million or roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Hariri said in April that Lebanon was close to a “breaking point” because of the refugees.
The civil war in Syria has seriously weakened Lebanon’s economy, slowing growth to about one percent from an average of eight percent beforehand. Estimates of the aggregate costs of Syria’s war to Lebanon run as high as $18 billion to the end of 2015 and have also raised tensions among its various communities, which support different sides.
On Nov. 4, a ballistic missile reportedly of Iranian make was fired on Tehran’s instructions by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The missile, aimed at Riyadh’s airport, was successfully intercepted. The Houthis have been receiving support from Hezbollah to fight the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, which has greatly intensified the impoverished nation’s humanitarian crisis.
In various conflicts in Syria and Iraq, forces backed by Iran are currently prevailing. Thousands of Hezbollah fighters continue to defend the inhuman regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If the pro-Assad militias capture the Syrian-Iraqi border crossing at Bukamal from ISIS, Tehran will achieve its swath of influence from Iran to the Mediterranean.
This prospect understandably makes Saudis, Israelis, and other nations nervous. The result could be Saudi economic sanctions on Lebanon and punitive Israeli strikes on Hezbollah positions. A Lebanese paper sympathetic to Hezbollah recently published a “secret document,” showing that the Saudis are willing to normalize relations with Israel as part of a U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace effort to unite the region against Iran.
Such initiatives would undoubtedly lead to even greater tensions between the Saudi monarchy and Iran’s Supreme Leader. If Lebanon becomes another destabilizing proxy battlefield between the two capitals, security in the Middle East will undergo yet another major setback.
Middle East specialist Thanassis Cambanis notes compellingly in The Atlantic: “(War between Saudi Arabia and Iran) would upend still more lives in a part of the world where the recently displaced number in the millions, the dead in the hundreds of thousands, and where epidemics of disease and malnutrition strike with depressing regularity. Short of direct war, Riyadh’s machinations will likely produce a destabilizing proxy war.”
The Saudi regime seems willing to launch a proxy war with Iran in order to shore up its crown prince’s credentials as a leader protecting Saudi Arabia’s interests. U.S. President Donald Trump appears ready to put the squeeze on Iran.
Al-Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi national, spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Nov. 18 and plans to return to Beirut on Nov. 22, Lebanon’s Independence Day.
Lebanon is caught in the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran with little control over its future. Tragically for its people and the refugees in Lebanon, any agreement between them by which they would work through all issues of concern and relinquish their support for proxies in third countries is highly unlikely in the coming months. The United States and France, which brokered al-Harari’s release, are best placed to push for a peaceful solution if willing.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.