What the Saudi-Iran detente could mean for Lebanon
When Iran and Saudi Arabia announced from Beijing that they would be re-establishing diplomatic relations after seven years it sent shockwaves throughout the region.
For several years, the two countries had been negotiating with each other over the terms of a rapprochement, primarily mediated by Iraq, but had been unable to reach a final agreement.
But now, with ties set to restart, many have been thinking about the potential impact that it could have on conflicts and crises throughout the region.
While most of the focus has been on how Iranian and Saudi negotiations could help bring about an end to the conflict in Yemen, some in Lebanon have started to speculate about how this could impact their country.
"For years, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly disillusioned with Lebanon, as Hezbollah, and, by extension, Iran, have established a chokehold on the country that the Saudis have been unable to loosen"
Quickly after the deal was announced in China, political leaders throughout Lebanon celebrated the announcement and what it could mean for the struggling country, now in its fourth year of an ever-worsening economic crisis.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that the deal would "reflect positively on Lebanon" and present an "opportunity for us to breathe in the region and look forward".
Even Hezbollah, a staunch opponent of the Kingdom, expressed its support for the agreement.
"The return of Iranian-Saudi relations is an important turning point for the stability, security and progress of the region, and it is the beginning of good things for their peoples and for the peoples of the region, and it is a painful blow to the American-Israeli project,” Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, stated.
Despite enthusiasm from Lebanon's politicians, analysts say that there is little to be hopeful about, arguing that there is little interest from the Saudis to get more involved.
"It’s just not on the list right now. It hasn’t been discussed," Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The New Arab. "Lebanon is very low down on the list of priorities for the Kingdom."
More important issues
For years Saudi Arabia has become increasingly disillusioned with Lebanon, as Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran, have established a chokehold on the country that the Saudis have been unable to loosen no matter how hard they try.
The Saudis have backed various political factions in the country, ranging from the Sunni Saad Hariri to the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), but none of them have been able to put a dent in the power that Hezbollah has over the country.
Even when Saudi Arabia temporarily cut off diplomatic ties with Lebanon in late 2021 it did little to move the needle.
Because of this lack of return on investment, Maksad says that Saudi Arabia is reluctant to put any significant effort into Lebanon.
"Iran cares more about Lebanon than Saudi Arabia does and to the extent that Saudi officials continue to be involved in the discussions about Lebanon is largely as a favour to the French and, to a lesser extent, to Washington. They kind of attend as observers rather than really partaking in the discussions," he stated.
This disinterest in Lebanon is also part of a new foreign strategy by the Saudis about how they view the region, not wanting to deploy any resources to what they see as hopeless cases that do not require their immediate attention.
Their top priority is the conflict in Yemen, where the Kingdom has been stuck combatting the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015.
"Lebanon is very low down on the list of priorities for the Kingdom"
When it comes to further negotiations with Iran, Maksad says that the Saudis are not going to waste their time making demands on Lebanon, instead looking to focus their efforts on getting concessions on Yemen.
Lebanon is also not a popular topic amongst Saudi citizens. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is looking to diversify the country's wealth, moving it away from being dependent on oil revenue through his Vision 2030, and has begun implementing hefty changes to the country that have seen taxes raised and subsidies lifted.
Because of this, the Saudi government needs to focus on discontent at home rather than doing what Iran did and spending vast amounts of money throughout the region to expand its influence, something that was criticised during the nationwide protests in Iran last year.
On the other hand, Iran has a vested interest in Lebanon by maintaining Hezbollah's supremacy in the country, which could mean that Iran might look for concessions from the Saudis on Lebanon.
"Yemen is important because it exhausts [Saudi Arabia's] financial resources and there is a subtle competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen and the Saudis want to get done with it," Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut focusing on regional security and the Gulf, told The New Arab.
"To be able to pacify Yemen, the Saudis will have to pay a hefty price to the Iranians in Lebanon."
This is something that was seconded by Maksad, who added that the Saudis could be open to considering a demand by Iran on Lebanon, such as the tacit approval of Sleiman Frangieh for the presidency, but only if they "they get something significant in return for it".
However, this is likely still a long way off from even being considered.
On their own
It is widely known in Lebanon that for someone to become the next president they require Hezbollah's blessing. That is why when Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced that his group was backing Frangieh for the presidency he immediately became the frontrunner.
Despite support from the Iran-backed group, it quickly became clear that Frangieh did not enjoy the approval of Saudi Arabia.
Reportedly, Saudi Arabia not only did not approve of his candidacy but was outright planning on fighting it.
"The Saudis would not go along with Frangieh because he is Hezbollah’s man and he was nominated by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement," Khashan stated.
"There is also very strong Christian opposition to him on the part of the Lebanese Forces. While Hezbollah and Amal nominated Frangieh as their candidate, they knew his chances are slim and they wanted to sue him to strike a deal between the Saudis and the Iranians. Hezbollah knew that a deal was in the making between Saudi Arabia and Iran."
"Yemen is important because it exhausts [Saudi Arabia's] financial resources and there is a subtle competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen and the Saudis want to get done with it"
While a Frangieh presidency is not out of the realm of possibility should Saudi Arabia receive significant concessions on other issues like Yemen, a more likely outcome is a minor politician close to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Gebran Bassil being chosen as a consensus candidate.
While it was initially believed that the army commander Joseph Aoun could prove to be the consensus candidate, recent attacks on him by Hezbollah-affiliated media have ensured that Aoun's chances of ascending to the presidency ended before they could even begin.
There is also little possibility that Saudi Arabia will come to Lebanon's aid when it comes to the economic crisis.
"The Saudis have sort of backed themselves behind the international, western position of you need to reform before any money can be put in here," Maksad explained.
There is also little hope amongst the Lebanese people that the Iran-Saudi rapprochement will bring an end to their suffering.
Marwan Naaman, 50, told The New Arab that whenever any aid comes to Lebanon it is stolen by the country's politicians.
"What actually ends up arriving here," the Tripoli resident said. "The people are poor."
Naaman added that it does not matter where help comes from, just that the Lebanese people are increasingly suffering, and they need someone to help them.
Jalal al-Zein, another 50-year-old resident of Tripoli, a Sunni-majority city in Lebanon's north that has traditionally been a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab countries, expressed even more contempt for Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"It doesn't matter if the Saudis are Sunni and the Iranians are Shia," al-Zein told The New Arab. "Both of them are liars."
"Iran has a vested interest in Lebanon by maintaining Hezbollah's supremacy in the country, which could mean that Iran might look for concessions from the Saudis on Lebanon"
Given the lack of interest by Lebanese politicians to implement any reforms, something that would unlock billions of dollars in desperately needed aid from the International Monetary Fund and the international community, neither Khashan nor Maksad are surprised by the Saudi apathy towards Lebanon.
"They don’t give a damn about Lebanon," Khashan said. "Nobody cares anymore. The Lebanese don’t care so why should somebody else care?"
Maksad maintained that in the event that Lebanon finally implemented the necessary reforms, Saudi Arabia would be willing to send financial aid the help Lebanon with the process of rebuilding the country. However, it is unclear how much aid they would be willing to send.
Until that happens, Maksad says that "there isn’t really anything that Saudi officials feel that yields a positive outcome for them".
Nicholas Frakes is a journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon reporting on the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno