Analysis

Saudis Head to Lebanese Ski Slopes but It's Hezbollah on the Slide

Riyadh's renewed ties with Beirut are no consolation for the cash-strapped Shi'ite terror organization.

People skiing at the Kfardebian Ski Resort on Mount Lebanon, January 12, 2017.
JAMAL SAIDI/REUTERS

The ski season is in full swing in Kfardebian, a Lebanese village about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. It’s expected to be the best season in five years. And for anyone who doesn’t want to attempt the narrow roads to Lebanon’s oldest skiing site, established in 1959, there’s always Zaarour.

This year, Zaarour attracted new skiers from Saudi Arabia – prompting the owners to hope that the golden years of the early 2000s will return. This was a noteworthy development, because for the past two years Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have boycotted Lebanon, freezing trade, tourism, diplomatic ties and $3 billion in military aid.

The boycott stemmed from both Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the Lebanese government’s refusal – under pressure from Iran and Hezbollah – to join a pan-Arab denunciation of an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran early last year. A furious Riyadh retaliated swiftly. It declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization and severed its traditional alliance with Lebanon.

But Saudi Arabia reversed course in January, when new Lebanese President Michel Aoun received a royal invitation to visit. Last month, the Saudi minister for Arab Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, visited Beirut, and Riyadh subsequently announced an increase in the number of flights to Beirut and a resumption of civilian aid. Military aid will apparently resume as well.

It’s not clear what Riyadh demanded of Lebanon in exchange, but the move apparently stemmed from a change in Saudi strategy.

For the past year, Riyadh has battled Iranian influence in the Middle East by building a Sunni coalition comprised of countries like Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf states, Pakistan and Sudan. Now, though, it has evidently decided to engage in even more aggressive diplomacy.

It began by rehabilitating diplomatic relations with Iraq, which Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited – the kingdom’s first foreign minister to visit since 1990. Iraq, which is considered an Iranian satellite, will now presumably benefit from Saudi investments and commercial development, and especially the Saudi affirmation of its return to the Arab fold despite its close ties with Iran.

Riyadh’s renewed ties with Lebanon are part of the same strategy. It evidently realized that boycotting Iraq and Lebanon didn’t work and that if it wants to block Iranian influence, it must resume its old strategy of buying influence with money – just as it does in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with Saudi Arabia's Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan in Baabda, Lebanon, February 6, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

For Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, this is an important political achievement. The resumption of Saudi diplomatic and economic backing will help him in the next election, which is expected to take place in another two months, after having been postponed for two and a half years.

True, there’s still no agreement on a new election law that is liable to cost Hezbollah seats. But even if the law doesn’t pass, the renewed Saudi investment – which Hariri will direct – combined with public opposition to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, will likely result in widespread support for Hariri.

Yet Saudi support isn’t the only factor that might change the government’s political composition. Hezbollah is currently facing a serious economic and morale crisis. Not only has it suffered thousands of deaths in the Syrian war, but it is having trouble paying its fighters’ salaries. According to Lebanese reports, some fighters have received only half their salaries; consequently, many have quit.

Iran has cut its aid to Hezbollah due to its own economic crisis and the high costs of the Syrian war. Thus, Hezbollah has been forced to cut spending, stop funding civilian projects and start fundraising from the Lebanese public.

It began its solicitation campaign about six months ago under the slogan “Equipment for the fighters,” urging people to donate to buy arms, uniforms and other military gear.

Last month, Iran also shuttered the Lebanese branch of Al-Alam, an Arabic-language television station owned by Falak, a company owned by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. This deprived Hezbollah of one of its most important propaganda mouthpieces. Hezbollah also reportedly fired many employees of its own Al-Manar television station and reduced programming.

Many Lebanese media outlets are suffering from funding shortages. In December, As-Safir – one of Lebanon’s flagship papers – shut down due to lack of funds. The An-Nahar paper has become web-only, and its owners had to loan it $1.7 million even to keep that going. Television stations have reduced staff and programming. Even Saudi Arabia – which used to provide massive support to Lebanese papers, especially those owned by Hariri – has cut back, resulting in layoffs.

Until now, Al-Manar and Al-Alam had been considered immune, thanks to their support from Hezbollah and Iran, respectively.

Hezbollah is also reducing its presence in Syria due to Russia’s increased involvement. Among other things, Russia brought in Chechen forces to keep order in Aleppo. It’s unclear whether this move was intended to get Hezbollah out of Syria, but judging by Iran’s angry response to Russia’s increased control on the ground and growing cooperation with Turkey, Hezbollah might soon find itself out of the Syrian theater altogether – or at least out of the areas where fighting is occurring.

Earlier this week, Military Intelligence Director Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hezbollah is currently not interested in war with Israel due to its involvement in Syria. But it seems the organization’s financial woes are also a major consideration.

With Lebanon’s economy recovering, the Saudis reentering the country and the ski resorts full of tourists, it’s doubtful that Hezbollah could count on public support for another war with Israel. The trauma of the last war, in 2006, is still deeply ingrained.

A new war would not only seriously damage Lebanon’s infrastructure; it could also inflame the almost 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. These refugees, who are already an enormous burden on Lebanon, could shut down the country in a search for safety from Israeli airstrikes, and Hezbollah and Iran would be blamed for inflicting a new tragedy on them.

It takes both capability and motivation to wage war. Hezbollah has the capability; its thousands of missiles are a far from negligible threat to Israel. But its motivation is currently at a nadir.