Middle East influence from the ground up

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2007

Middle East influence from the ground up

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Vice President Dick Cheney and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are doing something of a Texas two-step to stay out of each other’s way. The vice president was in Abu Dhabi yesterday seeking support for U.S. policies in the Middle East. President Ahmadinejad will be there this weekend, looking for the same thing for his policies.

There’s a lot of diplomatic and economic pressure being brought to bear by both sides all over the region. To see how it’s playing out on the ground, Lebanon’s a pretty good place to start. That’s where countries who want to show influence are financing the rebuilding after last summer’s Israeli invasion.

Ben Gilbert reports now on reconstruction one-upmanship.

BEN GILBERT: As you drive from Beirut toward Lebanon’s border with Israel, billboards let you know you’re moving from a place of relative tolerance to the more conservative Shiite Muslim south. Alcohol ads and images of curvy models give way to the turbaned figure of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In some places, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, scowls down from signs on utility poles. It’s no surprise when we see that the road we’re traveling is being rebuilt — after Israel bombs chewed it up — by an Iranian-owned contractor.

A few miles down the road is Bint Jbeil. This town was the backdrop for hundreds of television feeds showing the destruction from Israeli bombs. Now, it’s being completely reconstructed, not by Shiite Iran, or Hezbollah, or the Lebanese government — but by the largely Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab country of Qatar.

PERSON: From the government of Qatar — to pay damages to those who are to repair their homes.

That’s one happy person in an eager crowd gathered in the Bint Jbeil mayor’s office to find out how much he would be compensated for his damaged home. Qatar is spending $300 million on Bint Jbeil and three other villages. They’re rebuildingeverything: 12 housing units, mosques, streets, and all the way down to school desks. Bint Jbeil native and Detroit, Mich., resident Ali Faraj is grateful.

ALI FARAJ: Qatar is friends of everybody. They just want to help the people. The government didn’t help us yet.

The Lebanese government has only distributed around 10 percent of reconstruction money for people’s homes. The process has been slowed, in part, because foreign donors have pressured the government to be more transparent in the distribution of funds.Unfortunately, that’s led to charges of corruption. And people in South Lebanon are so desperate for any cash that they don’t care where it comes from — like Bint Jbeil resident Zatar Kassem.

ZATAR KASSEM: We don’t care about politics, you see? They are here because anybody who helps us, we are thankful for him. If America came here, George Bush said, “I will help the Lebanese people,” we are with George Bush, you see? We are with him.

Around Lebanon, there are hundreds if not thousands of signs that say, “Thank you, Qatar.” Other donors also tout their benevolence.

France and the United Arab Emirates funded demining teams and temporary bridges, and made sure people knew through billboards and signage. The U.S. adopted a high-profile bridge project in Lebanon’s eastern mountains. And Raouf Youssef, the USAID director in Lebanon, says the agency is pouring money into South Lebanon.

RAOUF YOUSSEF: The loss, if you don’t work in South Lebanon, you are creating pockets of terrorists. You are creating pockets, of areas very hostile to Americans and don’t understand us. We want to go there and let them understand us, let them hear our message.

Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait want Lebanon’s Shiites to hear their message, too, as they try to stem Iran’s growing regional influence. They also fear a conflict between their ally, the U.S., and their neighbor Iran. Youssef says the Sunni reconstruction efforts aimed at Lebanon’s Shiites are just part of a larger strategy.

YOUSSEF: I think the Sunni in the Arab world are really scared about the expansion of the Shiite influence in the region. There’s no question about it.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both stand to lose if the Lebanese government’s efforts don’t pick up. They gave hundreds of millions of dollars directly to the government for reconstruction. Hezbollah says if the government can’t help, it will step in and rebuild people’s homes, which would likely be done with at least some funding from Iran.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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