West Asia politics

Why Lebanon faces another crisis – and why this could hurt Saudi Arabia

A kingdom under pressure is fomenting crisis elsewhere.

The Twitter account of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri has been inactive since November 6, just after he announced his resignation in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Hariri justified his decision as a move to escape an assassination plot. So far, both Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and Ministry of the Interior have declared that they were not aware of any such attempt.

Rumours continue, however, that Hariri’s absence was not voluntary but instead imposed by the Saudi government, in particular Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Riyadh’s newly empowered strongman. Despite Hariri’s protests to the contrary, the theory that this was a Saudi intervention is certainly plausible.

As some onlookers pointed out, Hariri’s speech used expressions and terms that are typical of Saudi public rhetoric against Iran. He explicitly accused Iran of interfering in Lebanon’s domestic affairs and in disrupting Arab politics, and referred to Hezbollah, the militarised Lebanese Shia movement, as an Iranian proxy force – even though he became prime minister partly thanks to Hezbollah’s tactical support. Lebanon’s president, the Christian Maronite Michel Aoun, even called on Saudi authorities to immediately “release” Hariri.

Feeling the heat

Relevant to all this is that the Saudi government is under serious internal and external pressure. The day before Hariri resigned, the Shia-led Yemeni rebel government fired a long-range missile aimed at the International Airport of Riyadh. And two days later, Crown Prince Mohammad ordered the arrest of dozens of leading Saudi political and business personalities, in what he termed a campaign against corruption. In practice, this seems a strategy to give way to his uncontested leadership in the country.

This clampdown on Saudi Arabia’s opposition and civil society groups started a few months ago, and the wealthy businessmen now under arrest are just the tip of the iceberg. The rich princes’ fate is, it seems, not too grim: they reside in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in the capital. Opposition members, meanwhile, are held in prison.

The Saudis’ moves are pushing West Asia ever closer to the outbreak of a major international conflict at an already tumultuous time. While the so-called Islamic State has lost almost all its territory in Syria and Iraq, the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa by Iraqi and Syrian forces – backed by a pluralistic coalition of Russian, Iranian, Kurdish, and popular resistance groups – has shifted the regional balance of power.

From a Saudi viewpoint, the new geopolitical calculus strengthens Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his erstwhile allies Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, which for many years supported insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq, could soon be left behind.

Tipping the balance

At the root of it all is the deadly, long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has its roots not in the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam, but in the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Since then, the two countries have confronted each other multiple times, but never directly; Lebanon has been one of their main proxy battlegrounds.

After the events of 1979, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped to establish a local resistance movement against the Israeli Occupation of Lebanese territory. This became Hezbollah, which today is a powerful political and military force, boasting elected MPs and government positions. Thanks to Hezbollah, Iran’s regional influence surged, making the group a primary target for the Saudis, and by extension Israel and the US.

Just as the Saudi authorities’ hysterical invective against Iran in recent weeks has dramatic implications for the Middle East at large, Hariri’s resignation is a crisis in itself. The collapse of the Lebanese government, the fourth since 2005, could undo critical progress towards political reform and stability. Lebanon faces a massive humanitarian crisis; it’s now host to well over 1m Syrian refugees, who make up around a quarter of the total population. It also relies heavily on remittances from Persian Gulf countries.

Added to that, Saudi Arabia’s strange Lebanese ventures might pave the way for a more overt intervention by Israel, which last took action there in July 2006. That war left Lebanon, especially the southern region, in total infrastructural disarray. A reprise would do little good for Saudi interests; after the kingdom’s recent debacles in Yemen and Qatar, the last thing it needs is a conflict that would galvanise support for Hezbollah – and by extension, further embolden a resurgent Iran.

Billie Jeanne Brownlee, ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Exeter and Maziyar Ghiabi, Postdoctoral fellow at the Paris School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences,, University of Oxford.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.