Sometimes it’s good to learn from history. It was the year 1075 and the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by German king Henry IV, stretched over much of central Europe. As ruler of the Empire it was Henry IV’s divine right to ordain bishops and other clergymen, an authority that the new pope Gregory VII, a reformer, canceled by papal decree. The German king renounced the pope and in turn the pope excommunicated and dethroned Henry IV. The Pope had the tool of excommunication to make Henry IV abide by his wishes. The end result of this enforcement was that the Germans became more and more against the powers of the pope, which ultimately deteriorated relations between the papacy and the monarchy, and the bond of trust with it.
In late February, Saudi Arabia announced it was withdrawing $4 billion in grant money it had pledged to Lebanon in 2014 but had not delivered. The generous $4 billion pledge is not some sort of PR notion or coffee talk; there was definite Saudi Arabian interest in a strong state and Lebanese Army to defend Lebanon from military intrusion. Riyadh made a promise to Lebanon that was in their own interests. For Lebanon, the kingdom’s decision diminishes an already weak state and raises concerns about national security negatively affecting trust and reducing confidence in the local economy.
The relationship of trust between you and your friends is predicated on maintaining a level of independence within interdependence. By accepting a Saudi gift, Lebanon owes the kingdom its allegiance. But even without that event, Saudi Arabia was perceived in Lebanon as one of the most reliable friends the country could have, despite the fact that some Lebanese had misgivings about the relationship. And Saudi is burning that capital of trust by telling the Lebanese that if they don’t play by Saudi rules then the friendship is over.
The Lebanese, for their part, by show of their procession to the Saudi ambassador, neglect their sovereign duties and reinforce the idea that the Lebanese are not ready to stand on their own feet in matters that are crucial. This is a violation of their national duty and a very indignified show of subservience that no sovereign state should ever accept – if it has to be done then Lebanon is not sovereign.
Saudi Arabia’s best interest is to have a reliable friend in Lebanon rather than a puppet that may flip flop in terms of shifting alliances. In terms of end game, what we can only speculate is that the Saudis have changed tack and are now pursuing their regional agenda under a new strategy. The Saudis are thinking neither of the long term repercussions to mutual trust, nor to what effect their actions might hold for Lebanon’s economy. A huge number of Lebanese are employed in the kingdom – a driver of remittance payments to family back home. Saudi Arabia is also the largest importer of Lebanese agricultural products, an important sector in terms of local employment. The Saudis also hold significant financial interests in Lebanon, whether through exposure to sovereign debt and shares in Eurobonds or shareholdings in projects and companies. Tourism, in which the KSA and its Gulf buddies are a driver, has already been targeted by Gulf travel bans. And yet the Lebanese are acting like spoiled children whose daddy canceled the credit card.
The single minded focus of Lebanon’s political leaders in responding to the Saudi decision again highlight that they cannot or will not make choices in the interest of Lebanese citizens without first checking up with the Saudi overlord. Lebanon needs its leaders to make decisions and present solutions to the many pressing crises that face the nation – an economy on life support, an unending garbage fiasco and a neighboring civil war that threatens to spill into Lebanon. Our leaders need not kiss the ring hoping Saudi approval will solve Lebanon’s problems. Instead, they should roll up their sleeves and get to work. The impression our leaders give is that they cannot, or are unwilling to, fulfill their duties. For the sake of our economy, our national security and our sovereign reputation, Lebanon needs now, more than ever, a vision for the future. Leadership change is a must.