President of Lebanon Michel Aoun Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

God’s Middle East Playground

Lebanon, having long suffered from a combination of domestic institutions that are too weak and neighbors that are too strong, now finds itself in the crossfire between Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria winding down, will the region's main strategic rivals shift their proxy war to Beirut?

PARIS – In his classic study of Polish history, Norman Davies describes Poland in the late eighteenth century as “God’s Playground.” That description could be applied to Lebanon today. Like Poland back then, Lebanon suffers from a combination of domestic institutions that are too weak and neighbors that are too strong.

In recent months, Lebanon, more than any other country except Syria, has found itself caught in the crossfire between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has gained increased influence in Iraq and Syria, owing to the effective military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) – from which it has benefited even more than Russia. At the same time, Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia, is experiencing a domestic power struggle unlike anything seen in decades, even as it tries to lead the Sunni Muslim world in its confrontation with Shia Islam.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia’s young, ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), has been politically, socially, diplomatically, and militarily hyperactive, perhaps in response to perceived interference from Iran. For MBS, the deep structural reforms that he has been pursuing are a matter of life or death for his long-immobile country.

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