A disaster struck Lebanon, destroying half of the capital city of Beirut and creating an apocalyptic scene with over 130 dead and thousands injured and still counting. In just one minute, the largest explosion in Middle East history destroyed half of the Lebanese capital and nearly pulverized the port. This time, the tragedy was not the result of war between Israel and Hezbollah nor a terrorist attack, but rather years of negligence by the Lebanese government.
The country was already facing an economic crisis resulting from three decades of failed economic policies, mismanagement of resources, and corruption of a political system created along sectarian lines. Billions of US dollars in investments from the U.S., GCC states, and the EU over the course of 30 years were still not enough to fix the country’s economy, build infrastructure, or even provide power to Lebanese cities.
Gulf States Dominate Lebanese Politics
The Gulf is not far removed from this failure. Since the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Gulf states have been part of the country’s internal and external conflicts, peace processes, and reconstruction. While Qatar’s main role was in mediating the 2008 Doha agreement that ended one of the worst political crisis in Lebanon’s history, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent role in Lebanese politics was mediating the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the war and established the current political system. Taif peace agreement institutionalized the sectarian divisions in the country, to which the Lebanese public attribute most of the country’s corruption and nepotism. Meanwhile, Iran’s role in Lebanon started growing after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and now Lebanon’s strongest parties, Hezbollah and Amal Movement, are Tehran’s main allies and are directly or indirectly controlling the government, presidency, and parliament. This gives Iran the upper hand among external powers influencing Beirut’s decision-making.
The pressure from some GCC states on Lebanon to end Hezbollah’s military support to other Iranian allies in Syria and Yemen dramatically increased with Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power as a defense minister and then Crown Prince. In several instances in 2016, 2017, and 2018, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait called for their citizens to leave Lebanon, justifying it with the increased influence of Iranian-backed militias on the country. This happened along with the cancellation of all grants and investments from the GCC states to Lebanon, which further worsened its economic crisis. Tensions became even more clear when the Former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is an ally to Hezbollah, refused to condemn the September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, justifying it with Lebanon’s neutral stance of taking neither the Saudi nor the Iranian side of the rising Gulf tensions. Yet, Beirut hosts Al-Maseera TV, a channel that is run by Yemen’s Houthis and receives technical support from Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar TV, which angers Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Lebanon Faces Crisis after Crisis
Currently, Lebanon is rated number 5 in the world for the national debt to GDP ratio. By March 2020, Lebanon’s gross public debt hit $92.42B and its domestic debt constituted 63.12% of the total public debt. In the same period, total foreign debt was at 36.9% of the total public debt. The picture looks darker for the end of 2020 since public debt to GDP is expected to reach 160%. This economic failure is a result of many factors, but is primarily due to the Lebanese parties’ making of policies based on nepotism and the interests of their regional allies rather than in the national interest.
What started on October 17, 2019, as protests to change the entire political class turned into a revolution and led to the resignation of Saudi Arabia’s ally Saad Hariri. A few weeks later, a new government with a tight control of Iran’s allies was appointed and 9 months later it has implemented any economic reforms or tackle corruption. Before the port explosion disaster, the Lebanese economy was already suffering the worst crisis since the civil war. In the last 10 months, the Lebanese pound has lost over 80% of its value in the black market and banks cut access to the US dollar. This was followed by the implementation of the Caesar Law sanctioning the Syrian regime, which also left effects on the Lebanese economy.
For reasons related to Iran’s influence or failure to implement reforms, the current Lebanese government has widened the gap between Lebanon from one side and the GCC, the U.S., and the EU from another side. Will this catastrophe change this situation? There are two possible scenarios. The first, the GCC and the West will provide Lebanon with emergency aid to face the immediate crisis implications and negotiate long-term grants and loans related to rebuilding Beirut, conditioned to the economic restructuring of the country’s economy. The second is that assistance will be limited to only the emergency aid and will not include any long term aid or loans. As of the writing of this piece, the U.S., many EU countries and all GCC states have announced plans to send emergency aid Lebanon. In both of these potential scenarios, however, Lebanon might slide into more security turbulences if the Lebanese government does not implement reforms and hold officials accountable for the port explosion. If that happens, the party with the best arms and training will be the ones to take control of the country. In this case, they are Iran’s allies.