Saudi Arabia lands another hard blow on collapsing Lebanon

by time news
Saudi Arabia has initiated a complete severance of its ties with Lebanon following the October 25 publication of criticism of its war on the Houthis in Yemen by Lebanese Information Minister George Qardahi. The latter is Christian-Maroni, a member of the new government led by Najib Mikati that was formed only about two months ago, after a delay of over a year since the resignation of the previous government following the explosion in the port of Beirut (August 2020). It represents the small Christian party “Al-Marda”, which is part of the Hezbollah, Amal camp and the large Christian party “National Patriotic Current” (March 8 camp). He is a veteran journalist and media man (born 1950), well known in the Arab world. His remarks were made in an interview recorded in August, before he was appointed minister (mid-September).

In response, Riyadh and its Gulf partners – Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – on October 29-30 called on their Lebanese ambassadors to leave Beirut, and asked their Lebanese representatives to return home. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have instructed their residents to refrain from visiting Lebanon, and Kuwait has even frozen visa approvals for Lebanese. Riyadh has increased to do and announced the cessation, and outright this time, of trade with Lebanon. Although Qatar and Oman showed solidarity with the Saudi move, they were content with only messages of condemnation.

Lebanon is deeply concerned about the economic and political consequences of the crisis with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which threatens the survival of the new government and could once again lead to prolonged paralysis of the political system, without being able to make the necessary decisions to improve the situation. This is another severe blow to Lebanon’s collapsing economy, whose deficit has reached a quarter of GDP. On the eve of the start of the economic crisis in 2019, Saudi Arabia was Lebanon’s fourth largest trading partner and a major customer of Lebanese agricultural products. This Lebanese export to Saudi Arabia gradually declined to $ 280 million in 2019 and $ 200 million in 2020.

Beyond that, it is expected that the Gulf states will continue to refrain from transferring the promised aid to Lebanon (at the donors conference to Lebanon in 2018, Saudi Arabia pledged $ 1 billion out of the $ 11 billion collected from all participants). Even more serious may be a future decision to prevent the remittances of about half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf states, estimated at $ 3-5 billion a year – 60% of all remittances to Lebanon.

Hezbollah will not give up its influence

The president and prime minister have so far failed to advance a solution to the crisis. Mikati takes a cautious approach towards Kardahi and his patrons. In press interviews and in a speech on November 4, he called on the minister to put Lebanon’s interests at the forefront, but did not explicitly demand his dismissal. Qaradahi refused to resign on the grounds that his remarks were made before his appointment as minister, enjoying the backing of his party leader and especially Hezbollah. Following pressure from him, he stated (November 12) that he would consider resigning in exchange for guarantees from Saudi Arabia that it would back down from the steps it had taken so far.

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Mikati took advantage of his participation in the Glasgow Climate Conference to raise the issue with the leaders we met with and sought the assistance of the United States (Secretary of State Anthony Blinken), France (President Emanuel Macron), Qatar and Egypt. The Lebanese foreign minister, in an unusual statement, called on Saudi Arabia and Iran on November 3 to include the issue of Hezbollah in the dialogue between them, claiming that the organization has become a “regional problem” that Lebanon cannot solve on its own.

Hezbollah responded with the threat that if Qardahi was fired, his two ministers would also resign – a move that would lead to its disintegration and continued paralysis of the political system. In his speech (November 11), Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his organization’s support for the Houthis, claiming that Saudi Arabia, which initiated the crisis, exaggerated its response and is acting not only against Lebanon and Hezbollah, but against the entire resistance, out of interest in leading Lebanon to a third civil war. This, after she failed in her war in Yemen, in which she invested billions of dollars. He said Saudi demands threatened Lebanese sovereignty contrary to the position of Iran and Syria, which continue to support it despite having suffered many insults from its representatives in the past.

The deterioration in the relationship began in 2016

Qardahi’s statement was in fact the straw that broke the Saudi camel’s back, in the face of Hezbollah’s exploits. Beyond Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen, Riyadh is also troubled by its strengthening of the Lebanese system, as it opens the door to Iran, which in turn is taking advantage of Lebanon’s difficult circumstances to deepen its grip on it. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Ben-Farhan explicitly referred to this, claiming that the cause of the crisis was “the dominance of an Iranian agent in the arena,” that is, Hezbollah, which worries Saudi Arabia and makes its and the Gulf states’ conduct vis-à-vis Lebanon useless. To the understanding of Saudi Arabia, the new government in Lebanon is captured by Hezbollah and run by it. This understanding reflects the reality for sure: Two weeks before the Kardahi affair exploded, the Lebanese government did not convene due to fears of its disintegration in the face of Hezbollah’s demand to oust the investigating judge in the Beirut port blast, which led to a violent confrontation on Beirut streets (October 14).

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Against the background of the current crisis is the continuing decline in support for Lebanon from Saudi Arabia and the pragmatic Gulf states. This is in line with the strengthening of Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, which in their view is currently running the country for its own interests. For many years Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been the main contributors to Lebanon and have helped rehabilitate it, both after the long civil war (1975-1990) and after the Second Lebanon War (2006).

The deterioration in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Lebanon began with the election of President Michel Awan (2016). This marked the rise in the political power of Hezbollah, which was a partner in the deal that enabled this appointment. This development also contributed to Saudi Arabia’s decision to withdraw its willingness to finance a multi-billion dollar deal to sell arms from France to the Lebanese army. This, for fear that the weapon will reach Hezbollah and contribute to its military strengthening. The failed Saudi move in 2017 against then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was forced to resign during a visit to Riyadh but returned on his return to Beirut, also stemmed from a Saudi understanding that Hariri was collaborating with Hezbollah.

Talks with Iran are also in the background

The recent Saudi moves against Lebanon are part of Riyadh’s extensive campaign against Hezbollah, in which it recently declared Hezbollah’s financial organization “Al-Qard al-Hassan” a terrorist organization. In the Ozeri context, the Saudis are particularly angry about the assistance it has been providing to Houthis in Yemen since the outbreak of the crisis there in 2015. This has been joined in the past year by harsh allegations from Saudi Arabia that Hezbollah is responsible for smuggling drugs into the kingdom and flooding it with captagon bullets. Following the seizure last April of 5.3 million captagon bullets planted in grenades imported from Lebanon, Riyadh has decided to stop importing agricultural produce from Lebanon for a while.

At the same time, the timing of the sharp Saudi move against Lebanon raises question marks in the face of the renewed dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran on regional issues. It is possible that it is another expression of the lack of real progress in talks with Iran, and perhaps also a means of pressure on Tehran. Unlike Saudi Arabia’s previous moves against Lebanon in recent years, this time Riyadh has coordinated with its partners in the Gulf the severance of relations with Beirut. This can also be explained as an attempt by Muhammad bin Salman, the regent and de facto ruler, to restore Saudi Arabia’s regional status, which has weakened in recent years, as well as his own domestic status. It is also interesting to note the United Arab Emirates’ support for the Saudi move, after the frictions that have existed between the countries in recent years, and the accession of Kuwait, which generally prefers to sit on the fence and fulfill the role of mediator.

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As far as Hezbollah is concerned, moving away from the pragmatic Gulf states serves his interests in the regional arena and within Lebanon, so he is determined not to fire Qaradahi and maintain his leading position in the current government. In any case, even if Kardahi eventually agrees to resign, it is highly doubtful that this will completely resolve the crisis. Saudi Arabia has taken a considerable gamble in operating the last leverage it may have, economically, after its political influence among the Sunnis in Lebanon has been eroded. It therefore seems that it will not easily give up its goal of producing change in Lebanon’s internal system, and in particular of weakening Hezbollah’s and Iran’s grip on the country by exerting parallel pressure on Hezbollah, the Lebanese government and the international community. But given the weakness of Hezbollah’s opponents within Lebanon, the continuation of the crisis may lead to the opposite result. For, beyond its negative political and economic consequences, the crisis may actually distance Lebanon from the pragmatic countries and the West and strengthen the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the country.

These developments are contrary to the interests of Israel and Western countries. Therefore, it is important that Western countries, especially the United States and France, with the help of Arab officials, intervene quickly with the Gulf states to help resolve the crisis, and initiate a joint move to formulate measures to weaken Hezbollah, but without harming the Lebanese state and domestic opponents.

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