A common trope over the past decade has been the notion that Lebanon has been “held hostage” by the Hezbollah movement and its chief backer, Iran. This is based on concerns of the growing political and military power of Hezbollah, which along with the Amal Movement has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005 with the support of their ally President Michel Aoun. Claims of 100,000-strong trained fighters within its armed ranks, also mean it is larger than the Lebanese military and is the country’s most powerful armed group.
Such beliefs have been reinforced largely over the movement’s ability to consolidate power in the absence of strong state institutions while managing to avoid accountability and responsibility over its actions. Hezbollah’s alleged role in the assassination in former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the acquittal of three members over their involvement is a case in point. More recently, the investigation into the Beirut Port blast has stalled due to Hezbollah and Amal boycotting cabinet meetings in protest over the perceived bias of the investigating judge, Tarek Bitar. Earlier calls by Hezbollah supporters for him to be removed led to intercommunal clashes with Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militiamen. It was some of the worst street violence witnessed in the capital in years, leaving at least seven dead, all of whom were from the Shia community, sparking credible fears of a return to civil conflict and upending a fragile peace, although Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah vowed he would not be baited into civil war.
While it is understandable for segments of Lebanon’s sectarian society to view the country as being under the firm grip of an Iranian-supported Shia movement given its modern history which has had a lasting impact on the contemporary confessional political order, this idea is also rooted in deep-seated “othering” of the once-marginalised Shia Lebanese community who were and are still seen as an Iranian fifth-column.
This perception dates back well before the establishment of the modern Lebanese nation-state, where under four centuries of Sunni Ottoman rule, the Lebanese Shia (historically and colloquially known as the metwali) were discriminated against over alleged loyalties to Persia. After the end of French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon in 1943, the Shia were essentially excluded and underrepresented from the power-sharing arrangements between the Maronites and the Sunnis when they established the National Pact. It was following the activism of the charismatic cleric Sayyid Musa Al-Sadr in the 1960s and 70s that the Shia became more assertive of their rights and religious identities with the community becoming further empowered after the signing of the 1989 Taif Accord, both politically as there was more equitable distribution of powers for the country’s Muslim political elites, and militarily, as Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its arms after the civil war ended.
Therefore, with this context in mind, one can appreciate the concerns about the political ascendency of the Hezbollah, the community it represents and the influence exerted in Lebanon of its main supporter Iran. These feelings will become more pronounced during and after the general and parliamentary elections scheduled this year, amid a worsening economic meltdown and potential for further social unrest. Yet while both Western and Arab media tend to focus on the idea that Lebanon is being held hostage by Iran via Hezbollah, the discourse is one-sided and there is relatively scant attention paid to the fact that the Gulf Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia, have been pressurising and weighing in on the Lebanese government, undermining the country’s supposed independence in the process.
Riyadh has had a long history of playing an influential force in Lebanese politics, often supporting Hezbollah’s political rivals and acting as a protector of Sunni interests to counter those of Iran’s.
Speaking of hostage-taking, it is ironic to note that it was the Saudis who audaciously kidnapped an acting head of state, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017, who was coerced into announcing his short-lived resignation from Riyadh. It was later revealed that he was “verbally intimidated and beaten” during his detention.
The recent diplomatic fallout in October between Beirut and Riyadh, however, has resulted in concerted efforts to force the Lebanese government into making political concessions in order to mend and maintain important strategic relations.
Following remarks which surfaced by the then-Information Minister George Kordahi criticising the Saudi-led war on Yemen, the Saudis expelled Lebanon’s ambassador, recalled its own ambassador and banned all imports at a critical time when Lebanon was grappling with an economic crisis. Fellow Gulf states, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE were also quick to summon their ambassadors in solidarity. Despite insisting that he wouldn’t step down over the row, Kordahi resigned last month, likely owing to external pressure and the potential devastating consequences for the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese expats working in the Gulf who send vital remittances back home.
While Kordahi’s resignation may have had a cooling effect on the crisis, tensions clearly remain in light of Nasrallah’s comments earlier this week regarding the Saudis and King Salman, accusing Riyadh of exporting the ideology of Daesh, specifically referring to the monarch as a “terrorist”. The remarks were an apparent response to calls by King Salman the week before for an end of “terrorist Hezbollah’s” influence over the state.
Rather than defend a coalition member within his own government, Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned Hezbollah, distancing the government from the comments. This was echoed by dual-Saudi citizen Hariri who insinuated that the only threat to Lebanon is “the one who wants the state of Lebanon to remain hostage to the state of Iran”.
The Lebanese government appears keen on appeasing Riyadh and its Gulf allies out of a rational fear of political and economic retribution, which has included the Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi ordering the deportation of Bahraini oppositionists and the announcement of an interception of “nearly 9 million Captagon tablets” smuggled in citrus fruits destined for the Gulf. “We want to send a message to the Arab world about our seriousness and our work to thwart evil from harming our Arab brothers,” Mawlawi insisted. He followed these political gestures by ordering the removal of posters deemed offensive to King Salman from the predominantly Shia areas of southern Beirut. In its attempts to salvage ties with the Gulf, the compliant Lebanese government risks allowing the latter to utilise their leverage further as the elections near.
At the strategic level then, the actions undertaken by the Saudi-led bloc are little to do with offensive comments by Lebanese politicians and leaders. Rather these have been shrewdly exploited in an attempt for the Saudis to play catch-up in trying to expand their own influence while steering the country away from Iran through Hezbollah. There may be compelling arguments that Hezbollah undermines Lebanon’s national sovereignty, however these often overlook or fail to recognise that it was Hezbollah that protected and reasserted Lebanon’s territorial integrity when the south was under foreign Israeli occupation. This may seem like harking back to the past, but it remains the biggest strategic threat to Israel to this day, having amassed an arsenal of “hundreds of thousands of short-range rockets and several thousand missiles that can reach deeper into Israel”, providing a modest and credible deterrence against the prospects of any repeat invasions or a major flareup at the border.
As a fragile state with a history of foreign meddling and patronage from multiple actors, it would be disingenuous to use alarmist rhetoric that Lebanon is being “held hostage” by any one party or regional power. In reference to Hezbollah, this is based on an over-arching legacy of the civil war but also on prejudices against a formerly marginalised community that had historically never been a major player in the affairs of the country, now with unprecedented power and clout. Beirut, we are constantly being told, is under the firm control of Iran (apparently as Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa are too) yet challenging this narrative are the Gulf states who seem to be the ones calling the shots and who, according to Nasrallah, are in effect holding some 350,000 Lebanese expats “hostage”. In reality, it is the outdated, corrupt political system that has taken Lebanon hostage, a system which will unlikely be reformed as long as people identify and vote along sectarian lines. The country is in the all too familiar position of having to balance relations with foreign rival powers while maintaining the delicate balance on the ground among its diverse communities who are currently facing an unprecedented economic crises.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.