Tension between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon reflects a wider regional one
By Rami G. Khouri
The sudden spat between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon over Riyadh’s suspension of $4 billion in military aid to Lebanon is much more than an awkward bilateral disagreement between two Arab countries. It is the political equivalent of what Saudi Arabia has done in Yemen using military power—the unstoppable force of newly decisive Saudi unilateral actions across the Middle East, hitting the indestructible object of the country of Lebanon that has survived numerous challenges, wars and crises over the past half century.
In Lebanon, as in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using its immense financial and military power to achieve goals that it feels protect its national interests, but that have eluded it through diplomatic action.
The danger in the Arab world’s most powerful country applying intense force against two of the weakest and most vulnerable states is that everybody’s interests could suffer; the region faces the danger of new episodes of state fragmentation, political violence, economic collapse, large-scale human suffering, and new refugee flows.
The specifics of the Yemen and Lebanon situations are very different, yet some fascinating underlying commonalities reflect important domestic dynamics and regional tensions that have rippled throughout the region for decades—along with new ones that help explain the rising animosity and higher stakes.
The basic facts in this latest spat are that Riyadh wants Beirut to apologize for not supporting two pan-Arab and pan-Islamic resolutions condemning attacks against Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran following Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric it accused of anti-state acts. The Lebanese government has condemned the anti-Saudi moves in Iran, but did not vote for the Arab League’s resolution because it included mentions of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah holds posts within the Lebanese Parliament and cabinet, enjoys more military capabilities than the Lebanese army and has used them in wars in Israel and Syria, and exercises effective veto power over government decisions—which is why Lebanon’s foreign minister did not sign on to the anti-Iran resolution.
Saudi Arabia and four of its five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners have taken other measures against Lebanon, including reducing diplomatic representation in Beirut, banning travel to Lebanon by their nationals, as well as talks of expelling dozens of Lebanese nationals from the Gulf region, along with blacklisting individuals and companies that are seen as Hezbollah procurement arms.
Lebanon fears that further moves—like withdrawing bank deposits, expelling more of the 500,000 Lebanese nationals working and living in the GCC, or suspending major investments in Lebanese real estate—will devastate Lebanon’s economy at a time when it has already suffered from the negative impacts of the war in Syria.
Remittances by Lebanese in the GCC have averaged nearly $5 billion annually in recent years, accounting for 70 percent of all remittances that are an important pillar of the economy. With tourism and foreign investments already down, and investors jittery due to the impact of the Syria war, more pressure from the GCC would be hard for Lebanon to withstand—which is probably why Riyadh applied its measures now to force the Lebanese government to fall in line.
The Saudi withdrawal of the $4 billion security assistance comes at the worst possible moment.
Lebanon remains vulnerable to military attacks from militants in Syria associated with Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh, along with small groups inside Lebanon, like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades that attacked Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Beirut two years ago.
Such threats have been held at bay since then by the combined actions of the state military, security services and Hezbollah’s significant capabilities. Weakening Lebanese security capabilities now scares all Lebanese, as Saudi Arabia well knows.
The real dilemma for both Beirut and Riyadh, however, is that the Lebanese government cannot influence Hezbollah’s actions. The Saudi Interior Ministry accused Hezbollah of “spreading chaos and instability, in addition to waging terror attacks and practicing criminal and illegal acts across the world.”
Hezbollah defiantly refused to apologize to the Saudis, instead accusing them of using terror tactics in the war in Yemen. Caught in the middle, Lebanese Prime Minister Tamam Salam quickly condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and profusely acknowledged Lebanon’s appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s support over the years. As he prepared to tour GCC states to smooth ruffled feathers and try to reinstate the military aid, he reaffirmed his government’s “adherence to Arab consensus on common issues.”
The problem for Lebanon is, there never has been any significant “Arab consensus on common issues,” which is why many Arab states fight each other in proxy wars across the region. The immediate disagreements are likely to be resolved in the usual Saudi-Lebanese tradition of vague reconciliations that contain the current crisis but never fix the underlying problems, which will recur.
Both governments have carefully left the door open to this, and neither can afford the consequences of sustained mutual animosities and reciprocal punitive measures. In a wider context, the most fascinating thing about this Lebanese-Saudi political confrontation is the deeper regional contradictions that it reveals, and that show no signs of being resolved. One is the accelerating Iranian-Saudi ideological face-off across the Middle East that threatens now to disfigure Lebanon, as it has already done in Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria.
Another is the year-old Saudi determination unilaterally to take decisive and tough actions to protect its interests—even though such moves can create new threats and problems while they try to solve others.
A third is the chronic vulnerability of small Arab states to the actions of bigger Arab or foreign powers, while those powers often find that military and financial pressures rarely achieve their intended aims, and instead only generate greater defiance.
Also at play in Lebanon—as in Yemen and elsewhere—are the twin dangers of weakening central governments, and the problem of how to deal with powerful non-state actors that often are stronger than sovereign governments.
Ironically, Saudi moves in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon could have the unintended consequence of strengthening the precise forces they seek to weaken, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran has stepped in now and offered Lebanon the security assistance that Saudi Arabia has withdrawn, provided that Lebanon officially requests such an assistance, which would—if it happens—achieve exactly what Riyadh is trying to prevent—stronger Iranian links among Arab parties.
Many Lebanese dislike Hezbollah’s power that it wields beyond the control of the government, and Lebanon’s justice minister resigned in February to protest this. But Saudi financial and security pressure will not force a resolution of this internal Lebanese contradiction.
Lebanon will likely maintain its awkwardly ambiguous policy of disassociation by which it refrains from taking sides in regional ideological or sectarian contests, so as to maintain the fragile peace at home.