Lebanon has had a rough ride over the past year: the failure to secure a viable government; the catastrophic Beirut blast; then the economic crash which caused its currency to go into freefall. On top of all of this looms Hezbollah, which is ever-present within the crumbling Lebanese political system.That’s Lebanon today. The situation remains dire, with chronic fuel shortages and frequent power cuts. The Lebanese are suffering, and businesses are suffering. Inevitably, many people have already emigrated, seeking better prospects overseas.
To make matters worse, there has been little international support since the initial aid following the blast last year. France offered structural change and a chance to implement reforms – albeit in its typically rough and forceful way – and the United States continues to keep a watchful eye over the political developments; it has given a cautious welcome to the new Lebanese government.
No state has yet stepped up to be a partner and help the country through its many crises, however, which is where Iran and its allies have moved in. Earlier this month, Lebanon received a huge shipment of fuel from Iran via the Tehran-backed Hezbollah, which arranged for convoys of dozens of fuel-laden trucks to make their way across Syria.
Despite the belief that the movement would keep the fuel for the areas under its control, its Shia constituency and the predominantly Shia neighbourhoods in Beirut, Hezbollah insisted that it would distribute the fuel to those needing it regardless of their faith or sect.
The fuel was the equivalent of a whole oil tanker. According to Lebanese energy expert Laury Haytayan as quoted by Foreign Policy, though, this is only enough to supply the country adequately for two days.
Regardless of whether Hezbollah will distribute the fuel fairly or not, the fact is that the movement has pulled off a major coup which sends two messages. First, that it is positioning itself as the potential saviour of Lebanon by proving its ability to arrange and receive the delivery of a commodity which the country needs so urgently. Even if it keeps the oil for its own purposes, it has still shown that it is able to make such a move and provide a vital commodity.
Second, Hezbollah was able to have the fuel delivered without any foreign or Western powers intervening to prevent it from doing so. Unlike other fuel shipments from Iran to states like Syria and Venezuela, the US was notably quiet on this one; even Israel said openly that it would not block it.
The latter led to suggestions that Washington gave Iran and Hezbollah the “orange light” for the delivery in order to avoid confrontation. It was also, perhaps, a positive gesture in light of the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme. Of course, Lebanon does not face sanctions, unlike, say, Syria, so on humanitarian grounds alone the fuel had to be let through. Nevertheless, the wider geopolitics cannot be ignored.
Shortly before the Iran-Hezbollah shipment, the US approved a plan for Egypt to supply Lebanon with fuel by transporting it through Syria with assistance from Jordan. That show of positive regional cooperation was overshadowed by the Iranian shipment, reminding everyone that Tehran and Hezbollah continue to be major stakeholders in Lebanese affairs, particularly through the ongoing crises.
In Lebanon’s complex energy politics, though, one group of players is missing. The Gulf States within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been notably silent on Lebanon’s problems and have refrained from offering any assistance.
While GCC members have hardly been major suppliers of fuel to Lebanon (Greece, Italy, the US and Russia were the biggest in 2018), apart from Kuwait, we could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. They are, after all, fellow members of the Arab League, so Lebanon would be entitled to expect some display of solidarity at this time.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia in particular used to take great interest in Lebanon’s political affairs, attempting to stamp its influence over the country’s parliament, as Iran did. The only difference is that Tehran’s attempts were successful.
Riyadh’s efforts in this regard culminated in the 2017 fiasco when the Kingdom was accused of detaining the then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — somewhat oddly a holder of Saudi citizenship — and forcing him to announce his resignation. It was all quite bizarre. Following that, Saudi policy in Lebanon was a series of blunders and distrust, and its outreach has faded gradually.
It looked as if it might be rekindled in July, when the top Lebanese Christian cleric expressed his hopes for improved Saudi-Lebanese ties while meeting with the Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari. American and French envoys then visited Riyadh to discuss Beirut’s political situation.
Since then, though, Saudi Arabia has seemed largely indifferent to what is going on in Lebanon. Predictions that it would become a mediator in the country’s political crisis look highly unlikely.Meanwhile, Hezbollah has gained influence over multiple ministries in Lebanon – the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Energy and Water amongst them – in an effort to strengthen its position as a legitimate political party. The fuel coup now provides an opportunity for it to dominate the energy sector in Beirut. There are other suppliers, of course. In June, for example, Iraq decided to double its supply of crude oil to Lebanon.
This does not disguise the fact that the GCC’s indifference towards Lebanon is counterproductive to the organisation’s stated aim of preventing the Iranian “axis” from spreading across the region. However, Saudi Arabia has already made it clear that there will be no assistance for the Lebanese government until tangible reforms are made. In another warning, it even said that Hezbollah’s efforts to dominate Lebanon must be countered.
What the Kingdom and the GCC states appear not to realise, though, is that to ignore and dismiss the crises that Lebanon is undergoing opens the way for Iran and Hezbollah to take the lead. The Gulf States are thus enabling and empowering the very axis that they fear.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.