Lebanese protesters rally in downtown Beirut on the third day of demonstrations against tax increases and official corruption (Photo: AFP)
Official reaction of Gulf States to popular protests in Lebanon has so far been confined to evacuating their nationals from the country. For some, like UAE, the move came just a few days after lifting restrictions on their citizens visiting Lebanon. Meanwhile, a few media commentaries have reflected in satisfaction as demonstrators’ slogans attacked Shia groups like Amal and Hizbullah. Lebanese demonstrations are protesting the whole traditional political elite considered responsible for the dire economic and social situation due to years of corruption and nepotism.
Though the government is led by a Sunni prime minister, Saad Al-Hariri, some commentators in the Gulf see what is happening in Lebanon as weakening Iran’s influence in the country. That could be true, but contrary to the Gulf position on Iraq — where protests targeted an Iran-backed Shia government — the stand on Lebanese developments is muted.
For Iraq, Gulf countries were keen to reclaim it back from Iranian dominion since the Anglo-American invasion and occupation in 2003 that ousted the Saddam Hussein regime. In their endeavour to achieve this, Gulf capitals hosted not only Iraqi Sunni leaders but Iraqi Shia and Kurds as well. These efforts yielded little so far, and there’s serious consideration in Gulf political circles to drafting the help of Gulf-ally Egypt in reclaiming Iraq back into Arab fold and away from Persian influence.
Lebanon has always been different for the Gulf. Not only because many Gulf nationals have second homes, or second wives, in Lebanon, and a lot in the Gulf like visiting Lebanon, but also due to the nature of Lebanon’s traditional position in Arab politics. That small country cherished a peculiar formula of openness and factionalism, intertwined in a way making it the most prone to external influences. It used to be termed “the microcosm of the Arab world”, and almost every Arab political trend was represented in Lebanon at some point.
The Gulf had its moment, and the tool was simple: money and local clients in the Lebanese political elite. But in the last couple of years, Gulf interest in Lebanon waned, and the only concern became the rising power of Iran-backed militia Hizbullah. It looked like Gulf allies locally proved no longer capable of advancing the interests of their sponsors. Money that used to be deposited in the Lebanese banking system drained as most Gulf countries developed their banking sectors and people found other destinations for their money.
Official government support for Lebanon also declined to almost zero for many reasons. For example, the economic squeeze that started since 2015.
One of the main driving issues behind popular protests is the drying up of money coming from outside — either aid or loans from rich countries, or remittances from Lebanese expats. The last few years witnessed many Lebanese expats in the Gulf returning home, depriving the economy of much needed foreign exchange revenue. Even those expats in Africa or Latin America started to find it difficult to transfer money to their families in Lebanon due to tightened American controls on money transfers to the country.
There are more than 10 million Lebanese expats around the world, and only 500,000 of them in Gulf countries. Yet, that half-million used to send back $2 billion a year. As many of that number returned, almost half that amount is gone.
For the last few years, as well, Gulf countries restricted their citizens from visiting Lebanon, which brought down tourism receipts in the country.
No one now is ready to extend a financial help to Lebanon while they’re not sure what the outcome would be. Moreover, Gulf and other donors became fed up with Lebanese graft and inefficiency. One Gulf economist said that “billions of dollars given to Lebanon (by Gulf countries) over years were not reflected in any real development of the economy”. He added: “You can’t keep doing this... it’s like throwing your money down the drain.”
Of course, one can find the odd comment here or there — a junior official in a Gulf country tweeting about how the protests are legitimate, as people are suffering, or a commentator writing positively about how “the Lebanese are rising up above sectarianism and showing a civilised way for change.”
Gulf countries have been always wary of popular uprisings, and promote preserving the state in the face of chaos resulting from the so-called Arab Spring. Ironically, they seem to be accommodating the same development in Lebanon.
The reason, as many would put it in private discussions, is that Lebanon is different: there’s no fear of the Muslim Brotherhood hijacking the popular movement; any move to weaken Iranian influence is welcomed; and any means for change in Lebanon is better than civil war.
The Lebanese political elite might feel that the Gulf is abandoning them, but the fact — or at least perception in the Gulf — is that they brought it all on themselves.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.