GCC-Lebanese relations tumble
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.