Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
New Lebanese President Michel Aoun visited Saudi Arabia on January 9 in an effort to heal a rift that has been damaging to both countries’ interests but, until now, did not seem readily resolvable. How did relations become so strained and how much progress has Aoun’s trip yielded?
In early 2016, following a string of what it regarded as intolerable provocations by a Lebanese government it saw as unduly influenced by the pro-Iranian Shia group Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia began to pull away from Lebanon. It cut aid to the government and Saudis and others pulled back from supporting various private groups and organizations in a rapid series of devastating blows to Lebanon and its relationship to Riyadh. Yet the moves also left Saudi Arabia with little leverage remaining with its Lebanese allies and almost none at all with the clients of its Iranian rivals, Hezbollah and its main Christian ally, retired General Michel Aoun.
Neither side benefitted from the breakdown, which came to a head when Lebanon declined to support an Arab League condemnation of the sacking of Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, followed by allegations that Hezbollah was providing military support for the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels at war with Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen. Saudi Arabia cut $4 billion in aid to the Lebanese military and another $1 billion in support for Lebanese intelligence services. Many Saudi-supported entities in Lebanon, such as several noted newspapers, also lost all or some of their Gulf funding. Riyadh’s Gulf Cooperation Council allies joined it in issuing travel warnings to Lebanon, damaging the vital tourism sector, and in other measures designed to pressure Lebanon. Both the GCC and the Arab League designated Hezbollah a terrorist group, support for the organization was made illegal in several Gulf countries, and Lebanese residents were expelled, reducing vital remittances.
There were reportedly also dark warnings, apparently mainly in private from Saudi officials, about a potentially disastrous withdrawal of deposits in Lebanese banks. Lebanese fears have focused on the potential loss of $1 billion from Saudi Arabia deposited in Lebanon’s central bank and an ensuing crisis of confidence in the country’s all-important banking and financial services sector. This has never happened, though the prospect alone has caused many sleepless nights in Beirut.
Although Saudi Arabia certainly needs Lebanon far less than the other way around, handing Iran and its regional allies, most notably the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, uncontested sway in Lebanese politics is a clear setback for Riyadh’s regional agenda. By cutting off its engagement with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia was, at least to some extent, conceding defeat in its competition with Iran over influence in Lebanon.
Therefore, the Saudi rift with Lebanon was always likely to be a short-term affair, modified by at least some degree of re-engagement in the medium term. The election of Aoun and his visit to Saudi Arabia may have initiated that process. Aoun has long been the most important non-Shia ally of Hezbollah, and therefore also Assad and Iran, in Lebanon. This apparently unlikely partnership – since Aoun built his early career on vehemently opposing Syrian influence in Lebanon and appealing to a strong Maronite Christian sectarian identity – has been one of the most enduring and definitive features of recent Lebanese politics. There is also something quintessentially Lebanese in the partnership of such unlikely bedfellows informed by a set of pragmatic quid pro quos that batted aside ideology and rhetoric, and bothered or surprised no one in the country while confounding many outside observers.
Hezbollah’s main aim in recent years in domestic Lebanese affairs has been to thwart any potential challenge to its state-within-a-state status in the country, including military, intelligence, and infrastructural assets that allow the group to conduct what amounts to an independent foreign and defense policy to which the rest of Lebanon must adapt. The massive contribution of Hezbollah to the war in Syria, including much of the cream of its military forces and thousands of fighters, illustrates the extent to which these assets are increasingly part of an Iran-inspired and directed agenda, which includes the group’s activities in Yemen and elsewhere beyond Syria. Of course, the survival of the Assad regime is an existential imperative for Hezbollah, but this is inseparable from its status as an Iranian client – the Assad regime is an indispensable bridge to Iran, land conduit for Iranian aid and contacts, and support for Hezbollah’s powerful political position in Lebanon.
One of the main symptoms of Lebanon’s status as a regional battleground was the inability of the Lebanese Parliament to select a new president for 29 months. Internal Lebanese factors cannot be discounted in the impasse, but most of them are ultimately linked to the interests of external patrons as much as they are to purely domestic considerations.
Two dramatic developments in 2016 ultimately pushed Lebanese actors toward the deal that broke the impasse with Aoun emerging as president: the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies from direct engagement in Lebanese political affairs early in the year and the growing sense that Assad was poised to win a decisive victory in key battlegrounds in Syria (particularly Aleppo) due to the massive military intervention by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias. This was a huge victory not just for Assad and Iran but also for Hezbollah, which has claimed vindication for its gamble in committing so many resources to a war in another country. This combination of Saudi withdrawal and Hezbollah’s successful campaign in Syria set the stage for the domestic political victory of Aoun.
Aoun’s essential political strategy has been to consolidate his role as the pre-eminent leader of the most sectarian and identity-conscious segment of the Maronite Christian community and achieve his long-standing personal ambition of becoming president of the republic. His theoretically implausible alliance with Hezbollah, which seemed an insurmountable obstacle in his quest for the presidency, suddenly became his key asset, as he had long gambled it eventually would. The partnership began with the signing of a formal memorandum of understanding in 2006 and culminated with Aoun’s election as president on October 31.
Aoun and his constituency also share a key goal with Hezbollah: Both seek to block the implementation of the final stages of the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese Civil War. For Hezbollah, that could mean dissolving its militia and losing most of its independent power and usefulness in the regional Iranian alliance. Aoun and his supporters fear that the inevitable quid pro quo would involve electoral and political reforms to the old National Pact arrangement, already partially introduced in Taif, that further undermine the gerrymandering and various other guarantees that assure Maronites an increasingly disproportionate degree of, at least formal, political power in Lebanon.
It might, at first glance, seem odd that Aoun’s first foreign trip as president would be to Riyadh and, even more, that Saudi Arabia would welcome him. But in fact it makes perfect sense for both parties. Now that he is president, Aoun must move quickly to try to rebuild bridges with the Sunni Muslim and other pro-Saudi and pro-Western constituencies – including many Christians and even many of his fellow Maronites – in Lebanon with which he has been at odds for so long. Going to Riyadh sends a clear signal to them that he wants to move beyond the polarization that created the political gridlock that has plagued Lebanon in recent years.
Moreover, Aoun needs to move quickly to try to repair diplomatic and economic relations with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia but also the United Arab Emirates and other key GCC members. Lebanon needs the aid, investment, remittances, and other financial support from the Gulf countries that were such a large part of its economic viability, and it needs to ensure that there is, at the very least, no additional deterioration in ties. Rebuilding relations with Saudi Arabia will not be easy for Aoun, given his track record and political profile, but he has no choice but to make a sincere effort and, almost as importantly, be seen by other Lebanese to be doing do.
Saudi Arabia, too, has clear incentives for welcoming Aoun now despite its probable frustration with Lebanon and many Lebanese, including some of its traditional allies. But Riyadh cannot afford to permanently walk away from Lebanon or concede political domination of the country to Iran and its allies given the range of potential options Saudi Arabia retains in Lebanese affairs. Exploring what can be possible with the new president makes sense for Riyadh. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has moved past its primary reliance on Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other traditional allies in Lebanese affairs and is exploring new possibilities as a corollary of that already-established shift. So, even though Aoun has a long history of being on the other side of regional divides, it makes perfect sense for Saudi Arabia to explore what could be accomplished in dealing with him.
Aoun has confidently said that relations between the two countries are “recovering,” although in what way and to what extent is unclear. The Lebanese task, which is shared with some other Middle Eastern states, is convincing the Saudis that they have no choice but try to accommodate elements of both Iranian and Gulf interests in their policies. This is a tough sell, to say the least, in the current regional context. Early reports, mainly from Lebanese sources, Saudi Arabia “unblocked” the 2016 suspension of $3 billion in military aid appear to be premature. It’s now reported that the issue will be “discussed” in further meetings between the countries’ defense ministers.
It’s perfectly logical for Saudi Arabia to have listened carefully to whatever Aoun had to say, but the kingdom is likely to remain skeptical about what he’s willing to offer and capable of delivering. Riyadh no doubt recognizes that as long as the situation in Syria remains so favorable to Hezbollah, the chances of curtailing the group’s power in Lebanon will be slim. If and when Riyadh decides to re-engage in Lebanon, it might not want to give full credit for that to Aoun, and other actors, more commitments, and further moves will probably have to be brought into the mix. Therefore, while the groundwork for a potential, at least partial, restoration of Saudi-Lebanese ties seems to have been laid, most of the hard work, especially on the Lebanese side, remains to be done.
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