News analysis

Lebanon, a powder keg waiting to explode

Lebanon was always an inviting playground for other powers.

Lebanon was always an inviting playground for other powers.

With Muslims accounting for only 55 per cent of the population, it remains, by far, the Middle East's most religiously diverse nation, a position reinforced by a unique - and actually unwritten - political system which dictates that its president must be a Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and its parliamentary Speaker a Shi'ite.

But Lebanon is also a powder keg just waiting to explode.

Saudi Arabia's recent decision to force the resignation of its Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri may just provide that fateful spark, igniting a war much bigger than the one now going on in Syria.

The Saudi action did not come out of nowhere. It is the product of decades of frustrations with the growing influence of Iran in Lebanon, and particularly of its unique militia, the Hizbollah.

Hizbollah exercises tight control over Lebanon's Shi'ite population by being a state within a state.

It has a 60,000-strong military arm which is more powerful than Lebanon's national army, as well as intelligence and economic branches, and all the trappings of a state. It is the only Lebanon-based armed group not to have disarmed, despite the fact that it had undertaken to do so.


Posters supporting Mr Saad al-Hariri, who resigned as Lebanon's Prime Minister, seen with magazine covers featuring Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Beirut last week. Militia outfit Hizbollah's growing power may be a reason behind the Saudi move against Mr Hariri. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

And, it is not only Shi'ite, but a strict disciple of the "Vilayat-e Faqih", or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, a brand of Shi'ite Islam developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, in order to justify theocratic rule.

It was in Lebanon, and with Hizbollah, that Iran perfected a winning technique it is now using across the Middle East to expand its influence: whip up Shi'ite grievances, establish a militia force, and then systematically use it to dismantle a state until it is either taken over, or paralysed.

Israel tried to defeat Hizbollah in 2006, with inconclusive results. Since then, it was largely left to Saudi Arabia to take on the burden of the Middle East's efforts to prevent Lebanon from going entirely under Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia's traditional approach was to ensure that Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister was always its ally, and that he was supplied with enough money. After losing Mr Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's popular prime minister who was assassinated in 2005 for attempting to disarm Hizbollah, the Saudis shifted their support to his son Saad, who did not do that badly since he became Prime Minister last December.

But probably the biggest reason for Saudi Arabia's abrupt policy change has to do with leadership changes in Riyadh. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who may soon become his country's youngest leader ever, believes that the Saudis were taken for a ride by their allies, and underestimated by their enemies. He proposes to fix both by picking new and more aggressive allies in the region, and by acting more directly against Iran and its proxies.

He passed the first government Budget in almost a decade, and clinched an agreement for the country's first parliamentary election since 2009.

It's not difficult, however, to work out why the Saudis decided to pull the plug on him.

Far from weakening, Hizbollah is now strengthening its hold over Lebanon. The Iranians seem not merely to have won the war in Syria, but also to have gained Russian acquiescence in the establishment of permanent military Iranian bases on Syrian soil. These will act as staging posts for supplies to Hizbollah, precisely what both the Saudis and the Israelis swore would not happen.

And if this was not enough, the first Iranian-made missile was fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen where the Saudis are embroiled in a separate proxy war. In effect, the Iranians appear poised to repeat their Lebanon Hizbollah method on Saudi Arabia's southern borders.

But probably the biggest reason for Saudi Arabia's abrupt policy change has to do with leadership changes in Riyadh.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who may soon become his country's youngest leader ever, believes that the Saudis were taken for a ride by their allies, and underestimated by their enemies. He proposes to fix both by picking new and more aggressive allies in the region, and by acting more directly against Iran and its proxies.

Middle East analysts appear to be unanimous in their belief that Saudi Arabia simply does not have enough levers to defeat Hizbollah.

Perhaps, but Riyadh may yet achieve its objectives in Lebanon by simply creating a situation in which others feel they have to confront Hizbollah.

Israel is the prime candidate for that, as it has always regarded Hizbollah and Iran as its worst enemies.

In an unprecedented interview with a Saudi newspaper last week, Israel's military chief Gadi Eisenkot acknowledged that his country and the Saudis have identical positions on the matter, and made a public offer to exchange intelligence information on Iran.

But as the general also made clear, Israel will not be rushed into a Lebanon war at the Saudis' behest.

"We have no intention of attacking Hizbollah in Lebanon and bring about a war," he said.

Still, events can conspire to draw Israel into a war.

One possible development which could start a war is a Saudi decision to restrict the remittance payments or terminate the working contracts of about 400,000 Lebanese working in the Gulf.

That, coming on top of the fall in Saudi financial grants could create economic chaos which, in Lebanon, is always followed by war.

Another possibility may be where Hizbollah itself ratchets up the pressure in Lebanon, thereby making an Israeli attack inevitable. While Israel does not want a war now, it will not accept a Hizbollah takeover.

For now, few wish to rekindle another Middle East proxy war.

But, like the region's other proxy wars, Lebanon could explode as a result of miscalculations by the different players.

Saudi Arabia may miscalculate that it can harness others to do its fighting; Israel may be lulled into believing that a quick victory is possible; and Iran may well conclude - wrongly - that the time is ripe for them to push their influence even further.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline 'Lebanon, a powder keg waiting to explode'. Print Edition | Subscribe