Tripoli, Lebanon – Ahmad Tajeldin Abdullah remembers when his neighbourhood was filled with dead bodies. Three years ago, on the streets of Tripoli, he witnessed snipers shoot children on their walk to school, homes destroyed by explosions, and women being shot while hanging laundry outside.
Abdullah was starting to get used to peace in his country, but now he is terrified that it is about to end.
“I can already see a war coming,” he says. “I have a daughter who’s just 13 days old. I’m afraid for my children’s lives.”
His fear stems from a political crisis brewing in Lebanon.
It started on November 4, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly resigned.
He made the announcement from Saudi Arabia, fell off the radar for eight days, and then broke his silence in a televised interview, again from Saudi.
The series of events fueled rumours that Saudi forced Hariri to resign.
Lebanese officials believe the Sunni-led country is using him as a pawn in their competition for regional power against Hezbollah, an Iran-backed, Shia group that has established a strong military and political presence in Lebanon.
As Abdullah points at bullet marks on Tripoli’s buildings, he says what seems to be on a lot of minds in Lebanon: “Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for power, and I am afraid they will they use Lebanon as their battlefield.”
If this tiny country goes to war, the consequences could be dire – especially now, as it struggles to maintain political stability, continues to heal from its last civil war and hosts nearly two million Syrian refugees.
Many have already started storing up on food, saving money, and preparing for something they have become all too familiar with: war.
Since Hariri’s resignation, Tripoli business owners have felt the effects. Fadi Shaker went from averaging $300 a day at his candy shop to $20, Jinan Dib has had four days without a single customer at her salon, and Monzer Nshabe has profited about $7 a day at his dishware store.
“People are scared a war is going to start, so they’re holding onto their money,” said Nshabe, who typically makes $100 a day.
“They’re only buying necessary things, like food.”
Lebanon’s last war was between 2011 and 2014, when the Syrian crisis spilled into Tripoli.
In Lebanon, you can't guarantee anything. There is no permanent peace.
People who supported President Bashar al-Assad fought those against him.
The battles, which left nearly 200 people dead, are still fresh in the minds of residents.
Twenty-five-year-old Mohamad Youssef remembers seeing a man get shot dead outside his house. After that, he did not go outside for two years, dropped out of college and relied on rain for drinking water.
“When Hariri resigned, I felt a big possibility there will be war,” he said. “In Lebanon, you can’t guarantee anything. There is no permanent peace.”
For many, there appears to be one person who can ease tensions between Saudia Arabia and Hezbollah: Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Hezbollah has gradually become Lebanon’s strongest political and military force, possessing veto power in Lebanon’s cabinet and playing the decisive role in getting Aoun elected last year.
Since then, Aoun has supported Hezbollah, putting a wedge in Lebanon’s balance of powers.
“In the eyes of Saudi Arabia, that means Hezbollah and Aoun are establishing an anti-Saudi front and moving Lebanon further away from a neutral stance, instead in favour of Iran,” said Imad Salamey, director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University.
On the same day as Hariri’s resignation, Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a missile attack targeting Riyadh, which the Kingdom blames on Iran.
Saudi sent a message to Lebanon by pressuring Hariri to resign, Salamey says.
And, on Tuesday, the Kingdom sent another message by inviting the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church to the country. Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Few details of the meeting were provided, but Salamey says the Saudis likely told the church patriarch to persuade Aoun, who represents Lebanon’s Christians, to change his pro-Hezbollah stance.
Saudi Arabia has injected about $4bn into Lebanese banks to help Lebanon maintain a healthy economy, but the Kingdom has threatened to pull its money out if Aoun does not fall in line – a move that could bring Lebanon to its knees.
“There wouldn’t be war as much as there would be chaos – people breaking into stores, people breaking into apartments, people without jobs or money,” Salamey said. “There would be people in the street, rioting. It could be a collapse of the state.”
This is not the first time Saudi has made such threats.
Last year, it punished Lebanon for siding with Iran in the Syrian war, slashing billions of dollars in aid.
But not everyone agrees with Salamey’s fears.
Asad AbuKhalil, a political science professor at California State University, says that taking money out of Lebanon will not break the country.
“Israel came and tried to invade Lebanon in 2006, and Lebanon did not collapse,” he said.
“Lebanon lived through many civil wars and did not collapse. It’s going to take a world war to make Lebanon collapse. The Saudis do not understand the situation, and that’s why they overreached and overreacted.”