GCC-Lebanese relations tumble

November 12, 2017
Serious rupture. An Emirati Etihad Airways’ Boeing 787 airliner takes off from Beirut International Airport, on November 10. (AFP)

London- Following the abrupt resig­nation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, rela­tions between Lebanon and its traditional bene­factor Saudi Arabia have gone from bad to worse, with Riyadh ordering its nationals to leave Lebanon.
“Due to the situations in the Republic of Lebanon, an official source at the Ministry of Foreign Af­fairs stated that the Saudi nation­als visiting or residing in Lebanon are asked to leave the country as soon as possible,” said a statement by the Saudi government, which advised Saudi nationals to avoid travelling to Lebanon from other destinations.
Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members followed Riyadh’s lead and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait called on their citizens to leave Lebanon immedi­ately.
The travel directive coupled with Hariri’s resignation affected Lebanon’s fragile political land­scape. Saudi officials blamed Iran’s proxy group Hezbollah in Lebanon for the deteriorating situation.
Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan told Sau­di-owned Al Arabiya TV that Hez­bollah’s “aggression” amounted to a “declaration of war” by Lebanon. He said the Lebanese government would “be dealt with as a govern­ment declaring war on Saudi Ara­bia,” due to its allowing Hezbollah to operate unchecked.
Sabhan said that, during a meet­ing with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Hariri “was informed of how critical the cur­rent phase is in the region and in Lebanon, as well as the aggression against Saudi Arabia by Lebanese group the party of Satan (Hezbol­lah).”
“He has been told that such acts are being considered as a decla­ration of war on Saudi Arabia by Lebanon and by [Hezbollah],” Sab­han said, adding that Saudi Arabia would act accordingly, without elaborating further.
Hariri announced his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister in a speech November 4 from Riyadh. Rumours from Hezbollah and its media organs that Hariri was un­der house arrest as part of the Sau­di anti-corruption campaign were put to rest after Hariri travelled to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Crown Prince Sheikh Moham­med bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
A media representative said Hariri also met with Western diplo­mats in Riyadh, including French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Fran­çois Gouyette and British Ambas­sador to Saudi Arabia Simon Collis.
Lebanese living in GCC countries expressed concern that the dispute might lead to a forced exodus from the region. An estimated 156,000 Lebanese live in the UAE.
This is not the first time relations between Riyadh and Beirut have soured. In 2016, ties between the two countries plummeted after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a political ally of Hezbol­lah, refused to vote on a joint Arab statement condemning an attack on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran.
Consequently, some GCC mem­bers banned their citizens from travelling to Lebanon and reduced their diplomatic presence in Bei­rut. Saudi Arabia cancelled a $3 bil­lion military aid package intended for the Lebanese Army. All six GCC members designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and sanc­tioned some of its figures.
Relations improved after a deal was brokered in which Hezbol­lah-allied Michel Aoun became president of Lebanon in October 2016 under the condition that Hariri return as prime minister. This was followed by the king­dom appointing an ambassador to Lebanon in February.