SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - The last time Lebanon held a parliamentary election, Youssef Sanjar enjoyed a paid flight home from Saudi Arabia to vote for Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s party.
As an employee of the then thriving Saudi Oger construction company owned by the Hariri family, there was no question whom he would support. He helped with campaign logistics and his mother nagged neighbours in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon to make sure they voted.
Since then, Saudi Oger has collapsed because of Saudi state spending cuts, waste, mismanagement and corruption, and Sanjar has fallen on hard times. He says he will never vote for a Hariri again.
The loss of faith mirrors the break in the once-tight relationship between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, much of it channelled through the Hariri family.
With Riyadh focussed more on Yemen, where it is involved in a proxy war against Iran, Tehran has cemented its influence over Lebanon through unfettered backing for the heavily armed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
The change is tipping the balance of power in Lebanese politics, and Sanjar and his family reflect that shift.
Saudi Oger stopped paying his salary in 2015, he said, and he returned to Sidon the following year. He struggles to get by and he plans — along with several dozen members of his extended family — to show his displeasure by not voting in Sunday’s parliamentary election, the first since 2009.
“We felt we were almost like government employees,” Sanjar said. “We didn’t have a plan B.”
Saudi Oger could not be reached by email or telephone for comment.
Its demise has also left Hariri and his Future Movement in the lurch financially.
The fortune generated by the construction giant helped establish the Hariri family as the dominant Sunni force in Lebanese politics, and was a vehicle of Saudi support for late Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
Though he is likely to remain prime minister, Hariri is expected to lose seats to rivals including some candidates allied to Tehran-backed Hezbollah, another small shift in Saudi Arabia’s regional rivalry with Iran.
One of Hariri’s losses could be in Sidon. For decades, Saudi Oger recruited heavily there and the company’s demise has hurt the Mediterranean city.
The challenge facing Future in Sidon is compounded by a new voting system that means a Hezbollah ally is well placed to win one of the two Sunni seats held by Future since 2009.
“I would not be speaking the truth if I said we were not affected. We have, as a society, been affected,” Nasser Hammoud, the Future coordinator for southern Lebanon, said in Sidon.
Hammoud estimates the crisis has had a direct impact on between 3,000 to 3,500 people in Sidon — some 800 Saudi Oger workers and their families — though he still believes they will support Future in the election.
Hammoud said Rafik al-Hariri, who was born in Sidon, and his sister Bahiya al-Hariri, a member of parliament in Sidon since 1992, regularly sent unemployed locals to work for Saudi Oger.
Rami Qasem Madi, who runs a Sidon building company, said house purchases by Saudi Oger employees once generated over a third of his business. Lebanon’s economy as a whole is ailing but he sees Saudi Oger’s collapse as the main cause of his firm’s problems. Its workforce has halved since 2016.
“It was a big shock,” said Madi. “We all thought that the Lebanese who goes to the Gulf collects money in bags.”
Hariri-run charities have also been hit in Sidon. Two clinics that provided heavily subsidised health care have closed. Hammoud said one would reopen after the vote.
Sanjar left for Saudi Arabia in 2003. His job in logistical support services at Saudi Oger allowed him to put his children in an international school, support his family in Lebanon and buy a house in Sidon.
When he stopped being paid, Sanjar found informal work in Saudi Arabia, sold his laptop, moved his children to a cheaper school, then sold his furniture.
One of his sisters had to pay his airfare when he eventually flew home. He could not keep up payments on his mortgage and his home in Sidon was repossessed.
Sanjar says he is owed between $50,000 and $60,000 in unpaid salary and compensation. His goal is to emigrate to Europe.
Former Saudi Oger employees say they have been referred to the Saudi ministry of labour over compensation. The ministry did not respond to written questions about the status of the compensation.
While underlining that Future and Saudi Oger were separate organisations, Hammoud said ex-employees’ rights were protected and there would be “a solution for everyone”.
Hariri, who has been prime minister since late 2016, has said he will create jobs and revive the economy through an internationally backed $16-billion capital investment plan.
Hammoud said efforts had been made to find jobs for Lebanese who had returned from Saudi Arabia. Some have sought help from Future’s political rivals.
“Many came to us,” said Osama Saad, a Sunni who counts himself part of the Iran-led “axis of resistance”. “We did our best and perhaps some got jobs but of course jobs in Lebanon aren’t what they are abroad.”
Saad’s family is also prominent in Sidon. His father’s assassination in 1975 helped ignite the 1975-1990 civil war.
Saudi ties with Lebanon hit a nadir last November when Hariri was briefly detained during a visit to Riyadh and announced his resignation as prime minister.
The crisis was resolved after French intervention. On his return to Beirut, Hariri retracted his resignation. He denies resigning against his will and Saudi Arabia has denied putting him under house arrest.
Riyadh has revived a $1-billion credit line to Beirut but there has been no sign of financial support for Hariri.
Hariri supporters say this helps Iran.
“It’s a law of physics: a void will always be filled by something,” said a senior Future official.
The official said that “when we are asked how the Sunnis are doing in Lebanon, I say it’s a miracle they are still on their feet.”
Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah and Tom Arnold in Dubai, and by Hassan Hankir; Editing by Timothy Heritage