Analysis: Macron brings hope as Lebanon navigates competing crises

Protests in Lebanon > RomanDeckert, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

President Macron brought a rare glimmer of light to Lebanon at the weekend when he brokered a call between the country’s prime minister and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first sign that the autumn’s diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and the Gulf states may be turning a corner.

Lebanon is currently mired in three interlinked crises – economic, political and diplomatic – with the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah exacerbating all three.

What happened

  • On a two-day tour of the Gulf, Macron held a call with Najib Mitaki, the prime minister of Lebanon, and the Saudi crown prince.
  • In October, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies took action against Lebanon in protest at Hezbollah’s domination of the country’s politics.
  • Lebanon is already in the midst of a deep economic crisis, which has seen poverty and unemployment surge.
  • Hezbollah has left the new cabinet paralysed as it seeks to force the removal of a judge investigating last year’s deadly blast at Beirut’s main port. Hezbollah fears it will be blamed for the explosion in which 219 people died.
  • Another Iranian-backed terror group, Hamas, has reportedly established a branch in Lebanon after receiving the green light from Hezbollah.
  • A US-backed regional deal to ease Lebanon’s shortage of electricity is likely to see the country, which refuses to recognise the Jewish state, receive fuel from Israel.

Macron brings hope of respite

The Washington Post described the joint call between Macron, MBS and Mitaki as “a significant gesture amid an unprecedented crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia”.

  • The president said that Saudi Arabia and France had reiterated their long-standing commitment to Lebanon. “We want to commit ourselves to supporting the Lebanese people and therefore do everything possible to ensure that trade and economic reopening can take place,” Macron said.
  • Mikati welcomed the call as “an important first step” in restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, which had once been close allies.
  • Macron said France and the Saudis were prepared to offer essential humanitarian assistance to crisis-struck Lebanon. However, the president did not say whether the Saudis would be lifting the economic measures they imposed in October.
  • Ahead of Macron’s visit to the region, Lebanon’s information minister, former game show host George Kordahi, resigned from the government. In remarks made earlier this year, which did not come to light until October, he condemned Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemen. Thousands have died in the bloody conflict, with both sides accused of committing war crimes. Kordahi had been backed by Hezbollah.
  • In October, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait expelled Lebanon’s envoys and recalled their ambassadors from Beirut. The UAE subsequently also recalled its diplomats from Lebanon, and urged its citizens to leave the country. Saudi Arabia also barred all imports from Lebanon.
  • Saudi Arabia said Kordahi’s remarks were “insulting” but made clear its anger was rooted in wider concerns about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. “There is a crisis in Lebanon with the dominance of Iranian proxies over the scene,” Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on 31 October. “This is what worries us and makes dealing with Lebanon pointless for the kingdom and for, I think, Gulf countries,” the foreign minister argued.

A Saudi-Iranian “tug of war”

Analysts suggest that the diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and the Saudis had little to do with Kordahi’s comments and instead reflected wider tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. Karim Bitar said the row had “everything to do with the Saudi-Iranian tug-of-war that has been ongoing for the past few years. Kordahi was only a pretext for something that was long in the making,” he said. Lebanon is “one of the battlefields between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” along with Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where the two regional rivals support opposing sides, Bitar added. Riyadh’s move reflects the Saudis’ determination to force Lebanon “to take a harsher line on Hezbollah”. Bitar said Lebanon was “paying the price” for the geopolitical battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia: “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers and Lebanon for the umpteenth time in its history is the grass that is suffering when these proxy wars become more intense.”

An historic economic crisis

The tough Saudi line towards Lebanon could hardly have come at a worse time for the country, which has been enmeshed in a deep economic crisis – the worst in its modern history – since late 2019.

  • In June, the World Bank said that Lebanon’s depression will rank in the top 10 – and possibly the worst three – global economic crises since the mid-19th century.
  • Over the past three years, the country’s currency has plummeted by 90 percent of its value, three-quarters of the six-million strong population (including one million Syrian refugees) now live in poverty, according to the UN, while unemployment has jumped to 30 percent as GDP has plunged by one-fifth in the past two years.
  • The economic crisis had been years in the making. Weak and corrupt governments, a failure to undertake structural reforms, and an economy which has been keep afloat on a sea of mounting debt (Lebanon is the third most indebted state in the world) have, together, combined to unleash the current crisis, which has been exacerbated by covid lockdowns.

Hezbollah plays politics …

After a year of political deadlock following the resignation of the government in the wake of last August’s Beirut port explosion, a new prime minister was confirmed in late September. But Mikati’s cabinet has not met since 12 October as Hezbollah seeks to force the removal of the judge, Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the blast. The terror group is widely rumoured in Lebanon to have been responsible for storing tons of ammonium nitrate which triggered the explosion.

… and threatens violence

  • In September, Hezbollah is reported to have threatened Bitar, whose probe has widespread public support, in a message sent via a journalist. “We have had enough of you; we will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force,” the judge was warned by the head of the terror group’s security apparatus.
  • In mid-October, violence and gun battles broke out on the streets of Beirut as Hezbollah and its ally, Amal, rallied supporters to demand Bitar’s sacking. The scenes have been compared to the dark days of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war which ended in 1990.
  • Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted in the aftermath of October’s clashes that his group had 100,000 trained fighters – if true, this would make the militia larger than the Lebanese army, which is 85,000-men strong.

A green light to Hamas 

Into this incendiary mix has stepped Hamas, which, with Hezbollah’s backing, has reportedly established a branch in Lebanon. Several hundred-strong and based in the port city of Tyre, Hamas is being trained by unnamed Iranian actors and is focused on building home-made rockets. The group is believed to want to ensure it can open a second front against Israel in any future war. During May’s conflict with Israel, Hamas fighters in Lebanon launched four rockets into northern Israel.

Gas from Israel?

A deal backed by the US is likely to see natural gas flowing from Egypt to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria within the next two to three months. The agreement, secured in October, is designed to ease Lebanon’s electricity crisis, which has seen supplies reduced to just a handful of hours each day for most homes and businesses in the country. While not publicly acknowledged, the Egyptian natural gas supplied to Jordan by Egypt is mixed with natural gas from Israel. In October, the state-run grid collapsed entirely, forcing a blackout which lasted for several days. In defiance of international sanctions, Hezbollah has also commissioned a number of Iranian tankers to bring oil into the country, although experts suggest much of it has been “channelled” to the terror group’s own facilities and allies or smuggled to Syria.

What happens next

While Macron’s intervention is good news, the overall situation in Lebanon remains grim, with some observers fearing that, over time, the country could slip back into civil war.