Yves here. David, a member of our Brexit brain trust who also regularly opines on non-US politics and bureaucratic disfunction, has been raising concerns about what is happening in Lebanon and that they have far greater geopolitical ramifications than most realize. The fact that a shipment of fertilizer that had been idling in the Beriut port for IIRC 18 months and exploded with nuclear-bomb-level force was well covered in the international press. But after a couple of weeks of disaster porn, media attention moved on.
When I was in NYC to see my surgeon about my hip non-progress in mid October, I also saw my hair guy. He comes from a very wealthy Lebanese family, his father received custom-made watches (Patek Phillipe or equivalent), usually with lots of diamonds, from people like Assad (father owned the biggest oil refinery and related gas stations, also did a lot of construction and retained most of the properties he built).
My Lebanese friend gave me an earful on current conditions. One of his brothers is visiting. Currency 1/10th of what it was a year ago. Food shortages made worse by power shortages resulting in a lack of refrigeration. Medicines, even Tylenol, not available. Kids dying.
Lebanon has gone from 20% poor to 80% poor. The rich were largely able to get their funds out before the worst of the collapse. David’s reaction to that report:
This does need to be watched because it’s the last relatively stable country in the region. You’ll find the Lebanese are the greatest conspiracy theorists in the Middle East (and that’s saying something). Everybody has their own conspiracies about foreigners, which serve to a large extent to excuse themselves. Outside powers (at the moment Iran and Saudi Arabia, historically Syria) have always tried to manipulate the country, but the fact is that the hopeless political system (18 ethnic groups dividing the spoils between them) the corruption and general uselessness of the political class and the incapacity of the state have brought them to this.
The state has never been able to guarantee power supplies (even hotels and government buildings have their own emergency generators) or even collect the rubbish competently. The economy has been in free fall since the crisis of 2019 and the total lack of any coherent government response to the August 2020 disaster is in many ways the last straw. But the usual politicians are still playing the usual political games, and now Hezbollah, which did have a cleaner reputation, is making trouble as well over the enquiry into the explosion. Lebanon is a country with effectively zero capacity for coherent reform. When the lid comes off it’s going to be very nasty. I hope we can avoid that, but I’m reading the Francophone Lebanese press every day with increasing concern. To be continued I fear…
And now we have his latest sightings, hoisted from recent e-mails.
By David, who was born in England but hasn’t lived there for a while
Just to cheer you up on a Sunday, here’s a story about Lebanon which has been pretty much ignored by the western media, but which conforms to the rule that every time you think the eternal Lebanese politico-economic crisis can’t get worse or more complicated, it gets worse and more complicated.
This decent and relatively balanced account from Al Jazeera explains the basics: the Saudis have recalled their ambassador in Beirut and expelled his Lebanese counterpart, and a number of other Gulf states have followed suit. Exports are also being cut off. The pretext is remarks about Yemen made on TV some time ago by a politician who has recently become a Minister in the new and extremely fragile government, that itself hasn’t met for two weeks.
And here’s a local account from L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French language paper in Lebanon, which gives a lot more detail. For obvious reasons, LOLJ is following every twist and turn of the messy saga.
What this is all about, of course, is the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for political influence in the country. Saudi Arabia, which has been the dominant foreign power since the withdrawal of the Syrians in 2005, and especially since the beginning of the war in Syria, has become increasingly alarmed at the growing Iranian influence, and the growing strength of Hezbollah, both politically and militarily. Much of the rebuilding of Beirut after the civil war was funded with Saudi money, and the Saudis are going to be fundamental to any reconstruction package now. At one point, Lebanon’s tourist industry was largely from the Gulf, and many Saudis and others bought property there.
But over the last decade, Gulf governments have put increasing pressure on their people not to go to Lebanon, thus exacerbating the country’s economic problems. The Saudis seem to be trying to use economic pressure to counter Iran’s military influence, but they risk actually blowing the government up and tearing the country apart.
Sunni politicians, always sensitive to Riyadh, are calling for the Minister to be sacked, which would give the Saudis an effective veto over any future Lebanese government. It has to be said that Hezbollah hasn’t helped either, with its demands for the judge in charge of the August 2020 Port explosion enquiry to be sacked (they forced the first one out), although he hasn’t indicted anyone from Hezbollah or Amal, the other main Shia political party.
The fact that all the major political parties have refused to cooperate with the inquiry suggests that not only do some of their members in each case have political responsibility(eg not acting on warnings) but that people lower down in the patronage system (again appointed on ethnic and clan grounds) may actually have been deficient in doing their jobs.
I suspect that a bigger worry for the clan leaders is that any investigation will, at last, take the lid off some of the things that “everyone knows” in theory, but whose details have never been revealed. This, I think is why the political class is hanging together for fear of being hanged separately, since they all have a lot to hide, and at many different levels. Depending on your definition of “crime” and “guilt” and “responsibility” pretty much the whole of the Labanese political class, and many of the people they have given jobs to, shoukd be in the dock.
A bunch of kids having a match-throwing competition in a firework factory.
There are a couple of other elements which come out of these articles (and others, the situation is changing all the time).
The most important, perhaps is that in this Iranian-Saudi spat, neither side is showing very much subtlety, and indeed neither seems to have much idea of how to wield soft power. This is not surprising perhaps in a region where force is the preferred mechanism for settling problems.
Remember that in 2017, Saad Hariri, then Prime Minister, was summoned to Riyadh and forced to read a statement on Saudi TV resigning his position. He retracted his resignation when he returned to Lebanon, but that gives you an indication of what the Saudis think subtlety is. The Saudis are obsessed with Hezbollah, and that party, in turn, has not always behaved very sensibly either.
However, there are some mildly encouraging signs. The Minister concerned, Georges Corhadi, is a Maronite Christian, which in a way is fortunate since the quarrel is not an internal Sunni-Shia one. On the whole, the Lebanese system is backing the Mikati government and Corhadi, as is the Arab League, and major western powers. Without overtly taking sides, they are all, in coded terms, trying to encourage the Saudis to calm down. The US have apparently been to see the Saudis and tried to get them to back off, but to no effect.
But there is also scope for escalation: hundreds of thousands of Lebanese work in the Gulf, often in highly-paid jobs such as banking. There are rumours that they might be expelled, which would mean a major source of foreign earnings drying up .
And finally, this all takes place at a time of unprecedented disgust with the Lebanese political class, which makes the Romanovs of 1917 seem models of creative compromise by comparison. Because the country is an imperfect democracy, its politics entirely structured by ethnic and clan affiliation and foreign influence, there is no “régime” that could be “changed.” Everybody agrees that the current ethnic spoils system and the current corrupt elite has to go, but everybody keeps voting along ethnic lines and for the same corrupt elite. It’s hard to see a way out.
Of course, that’s the very simplified version.