Saudi Arabia Gazes at Lebanon with Vengeance

This article was first published by jadaliyya on Mar 19 2016

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On 2 March 2016 Lebanon woke up to the news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had declared Hizballah a terrorist organization. Many perceived this as a kind of patriarchal collective punishment. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the designation of Hizballah as a “terrorist” organisation can only be read as another desperate attempt by Saudi Arabia to bring its war for regional dominance to Lebanon. This form of Saudi desperation stems from the decline of its geopolitical regional hegemony, which occurred when the kingdom decided to spearhead the counterrevolution that failed to quell uprisings in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain. In addition, the kingdom’s serious miscalculations on Syria have added to its losing hand since it decided to co-opt the Syrian uprising. More recently, the kingdom exhibited further severe signs of desperation when its alliance with Israel became public.

Saudi Arabia’s escalating attempts to isolate Hizballah in Lebanon were not limited to declaring the organization a “terrorist” organization. Aiming to segregate and alienate Hizballah in its homeland is not Saudi Arabia’s first attempt to bringing its own cold war with Iran to the Lebanese arena. Yet this time around it could also be read as laying the groundwork for upcoming Israeli aggression, particularly since the embarrassing “outing” of the Saudi-Israeli alliance. The durability of this alliance may be tested and deployed sooner than later. Just last week an article in Foreign Policy predicted that Sheb‘a will be the spark to ignite the next war. The article also noted, “On the Israeli side, top officials have confirmed that Hezbollah [sic] continues to be one of the country’s top security threats and raised the possibility of a large-scale offensive against the group. ‘Iran is waging a war against Israel via proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, who today poses the most serious threat to Israel,’ said Israeli army chief Gadi Eizenkot, architect of the Dahiya doctrine.’” In this light, Saudi Arabia’s latest escalations against Lebanon and Hizballah can be read against the backdrop of an Israeli military build-up on the Lebanese/Syrian border and a precursor to another “Dahiya doctrine” upon which the kingdom can capitalize: assuming a similar flattening of south Lebanon and Dahiya ensues, over one million Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian refugees and civilians will head north to flee Israeli bombardment. Unlike in 2006, when internal Lebanese solidarity largely embraced those displaced while Hizballah resisted Israeli aggression, this time around the blame for the thousands displaced will be placed squarely on Hizballah. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to isolate the group and foment Sunni sectarian sentiment against the Shi‘a in general also aims to ensure that finding shelter in Syria will not be an option. Today, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that the Lebanese solidarity of 2006 is obliterated, by attempting to buy Hizballah’s local allies while spreading sectarian sentiments. The imposition of the status of “terrorist” on Hizballah is, furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s attempt to sever international solidarity for the organization.

Saudi Arabia has also managed to rally the GCC to collectively punish Lebanese citizens who live and work in Gulf countries. Many Lebanese families have had their businesses, assets, and property confiscated, followed by a forty-eight-hour deportation notice.

On a Losing Streak

However, closer examination shows that these preliminary tactics have already failed. The kingdom’s foreign policy is best described at the moment as one rife with cognitive dissonance, especially after despatching their bemused emissary Sa‘ad Hariri, a former prime minster of Lebanon, whose soft tactics in confronting Hizballah and March 8 were impotent. Hariri is both financially and popularly bankrupt. Hariri’s business empire is unable to pay months of overdue salaries of his Future TV channel employees… and Harirism without money is by definition a losing cause. Hariri knows this time around that the credibility he and his Future Party had once enjoyed among Sunnis in Lebanon is now at rock bottom. The Future Party has reached the end of its days: its ranks have shrunk to a handful of racketeering representatives and its leadership is staffed with politicians in a unity government so that their own business interests are intertwined with those of both Hizballah and Amal. Hariri hence seems disillusioned and coy about his capability to deliver the chaos Saudi Arabia despatched him for. The former prime minister had already tried his hand at a full on confrontation, which resulted in what many term a mini-civil war, with a death toll of over one hundred, known locally as the events of 7 May 2008. Today, he does not enjoy a fraction of former support that allowed him to march partisans into that losing battle; that was the heyday of Sa‘ad’s Future Party. At this moment, he can not live up to the level of escalation the Saudis dispatched him for.

Under pressure, Hariri has had to launch a petition signed by all his cronies to demonstrate some semblance of loyalty and support for the kingdom. The petition was not the only stunt he managed to pull. He looked to the streets and scraped up what’s left of his Sunni support base to put together a fanfare of public rallying to prove to the Saudis that he can still move the Lebanese Sunni street. However, listing Hizballah as a “terrorist” organization confirms that the kingdom demands more than a mere zoom shot of a Hariri carried atop the shoulders of a handful of supporters. The Saudis want Hariri to deliver a confrontation on par with 7 May 2008, only this time Hariri is aware that he lacks the popularity, credibility, and finances to drag Sunni men into a battle with Hizballah or with Lebanon’s Shi‘a elements.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia’s paving the way for another Dahiya Doctrine is best exposed by the ruling family, spearheaded by Mohammad bin Salman, urging Hariri to bring all the ingrate children back to the patriarchal Sunni fold by opening up to old foes like Abdul Rahim Mrad, an old school militant Arab nationalist and member of March 8. Mrad, through his feudal welfare enterprises, has kept a substantial Sunni partisanship in the Beqa‘ valley that has increased as Hariri’s welfare has decreased. It is also worth noting that Mrad holds strategic electoral towns and villages in the western Beqa‘, which also functions as a corridor to South Lebanon. Moreover, presently he is arguably the most consistent Sunni leader when it comes to rallying his own following. On 27 February, Mrad changed his Facebook banner from his party slogan to this: “Sunnis are the true protectors of Arabism and they should remain as such.” This banner is more fitting to his new political orbit echoing Saudi Arabia’s latest claims of representing “Arabism.”

Dangerous Tactics

In the last five years many disappointed Future Party supporters have been cozying-up to other Sunni political parties but the most attractive is the masculinist, highly chauvinistic mode of Sunni representation, most closely personified by Jabhat al-Nusra: it is viewed by many as a “true representative of Sunna.” Today, Abu Mohamad al-Julani. commands more viewers and captures the full attention of listening ears much more than Sa‘ad Hariri can muster. The sky-blue flags of the Future Party have been increasingly turning black and sporting the white, bolded words of la illah ila allah, in the font that has come to be associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. It is safe to say that since 2005 the Future Party’s political deception has resulted in bitter disappointment and the subsequent radicalization of many of those who filled its ranks.

On 21 June 2015, angry families in Lebanon took to the streets protesting the brutal treatment of Islamist prisoners at Roumia prison. A leaked video showed one security officer flogging a naked, handcuffed, bearded man with a water hose while shouting profanities: “Do you want houriat? It’s your mother who will be the hourieh.” The featured torturers turned out to be members of the Information Security Branch, which is under the direct command of Minister of Interior and Future Party leader Nouhad al-Mashnuq. Protesters in Tripoli, Beirut, and Iqlim al-Kharrub (in Mount Lebanon) chanted slogans and insults against Hariri, al-Mashnuq, and Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi, calling them “secular infidels that do not represent ahal al-Sunna.”

In the face of this public resentment, some Future Party MPs in the north (MPs Khalid al-Daher and Mouin Mer’abi) distanced themselves from their party for fear of losing their local constituency, while others blamed the whole thing on Hizballah. Rifi, with his trademark impulsive miscalculations, blamed Hizballah for leaking the video showing humiliation and torture of Lebanese Islamist prisoners (mostly from Tripoli and other parts of the north). But in his attempt to direct Sunni anger against the Shi‘a, Rifi’s sectarian politics backfired. Angry protesters turned apoplectic because of their perception that Rifi assumed that they were too stupid to discern his tactics, and instead some protesters went on television, shouting, “We want to thank Hizballah for exposing the truth about the torture our sons are subjected to in Roumia.” Hizballah denied leaking the video; moreover, the IP address of the original YouTube account where the video was first published turned out to be that of the media office of Ashraf Rifi. Hizballah’s advantage lies in the fact that Saudi Arabia’s proxies in Lebanon are currently caught up in a maelstrom of confusion and a lack of public credibility.

Internally, in light of an ongoing and self-inflicted trash crisis, both March 8 and March 14 politicians continue to de-escalate their political rhetoric. However, Saudi Arabia’s insistence on a confrontation with Hizballah means that it is only a matter of time until the Saudis withdraw their losing card, Sa‘ad Hariri, and deploy another Trojan horse to create the sort of chaos the kingdom seeks. This means other Sunni figures will be given a leading role and Hariri will be out of the Lebanese arena–again. Saudi Arabia’s possible nominees for unconventional roles could include Jabhat al-Nusra or/and IS, alongside thuggish Sunni figures who have splintered from Future and set up their own shop as warlords for hire. This includes those who perpetuated a six-year war between the poorest communities in Tripoli.

On the Saudi side, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s megalomaniacal ambitions took an embarrassing hit when Saudi negotiators failed to release Abdul Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud from Lebanese authorities. The “Prince of Captagon,” as Lebanese media called him, was busted while casually departing Beirut International Airport with a “personal stash” of forty suitcases packed with thousands of Captagon pills, in addition to a few kilos of cocaine and bundles of Lebanese hashish. Al-Khalij al-Jadid magazine reported on 25 February that Saudi Arabia’s escalation against Lebanon started by terminating three billion dollars’ worth of aid to the Lebanese army as a result of the “collapse of negotiations with Hizballah” that failed to reach a settlement to release the “Prince of Captagon,” who had been in Lebanese jail(s) since late October.

The series of events, culminating in the designation of Hizballah as a terrorist organization, only means that Saudi Arabia’s gluttony will no longer be satisfied by its traditional Lebanese political meal. The baptizing of the Saudi-Israeli alliance with Lebanese blood today looks closer than ever.

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