The first visit of Lebanese President Michel Aoun to Saudi Arabia came in an attempt to restore normalcy between the two states after a period of deadlock. This visit had two main sets of objectives
In spite of President Aoun’s close ties with Hezbollah and Iran, he understands that success in the coming days of his presidency necessitates an improvement in relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The latter may stand as an important channel for Lebanon to open up to the outside world, including the United States and Europe, in light of the ongoing tensions in Iranian-American relations with the advent of the new administration.
Moreover, a Lebanese president, who is devoid of any Arab support, cannot run the state smoothly. So, political settlement with Saudi Arabia, a major Arab and Islamic player, would certainly have President Aoun’s back at both Arab and Islamic levels.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role in Lebanon in terms of the latter’s internal stability. It would undoubtedly contribute to consolidating internal stability and consensus in a state that is known for political polarization between its components on sectarian, ethnic or interest bases.
The deterioration of Gulf-Lebanese relations over the past two years has had a significant impact on the Lebanese economy. Lebanese investments in the Gulf States are estimated to be over $100 billion, and Gulf investments in Lebanon represent 85 percent of the country’s total foreign investments. In addition, around 750,000 Lebanese nationals work in the Gulf States, half a million of whom are in Saudi Arabia with tens of thousands in other Gulf States. They remit around $4 billion per year to Lebanon. It is said that 50 percent of Lebanese families depend totally or partially on these remittances. According to bank estimates, the value of Gulf assets in Lebanese banks is estimated to be over $20 billion. Therefore, Lebanon’s economic stability is essentially linked to the Gulf States.
Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role in Lebanon in terms of the latter’s internal stabilityDr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin
However, outcomes of the visit are subject to numerous challenges, particularly, in terms of Hezbollah’s foreign policy and the role it plays in the Syrian crisis, as well as in Yemen, with its operations targeting the Gulf States. It is worth noting that the visit was announced amid Hezbollah’s marking of the execution of the Saudi terrorist Nimr Al-Nimr, who was described by the Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah, Naim Qassem, as “a prominent figure of jihad in the Arabian Peninsula”. Thus, the major challenge facing President Aoun will be his ability to convince Hezbollah to spare Lebanon and the Lebanese community further tensions in their relations with the Arab world and the Gulf States.
However, those who have a close eye on Lebanese affairs know that such a shift in the Lebanese stand does not indicate Lebanon’s political independence. It is rather a temporary shift imposed by the circumstances that have surrounded the country over the past two years. Such circumstances have forced Iran, Hezbollah, and pro-Iran groups in Lebanon to compromise on some issues.
The Lebanese crisis is deeply rooted in the structure of the regime itself, which suffers from political sectarianism enshrined by the 1926 constitution. It also suffers from an institutional sag caused by sub-State loyalties. Such loyalties take tribal or sectarian forms that serve as substitute institutions to the state, leaving state institutions weak.
Finally, the weakness of the state has allowed foreign intervention that poses restrictions on any deterrence by the state causing its institutions to be paralyzed.
This article was first published in Saudi Gazette.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin is a Middle East affairs specialist and security analyst based in Riyadh. He can be contacted at Ibrahim.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Alothaimin