Gulf analysts say Saudi halt of Lebanese grant was ‘expected’

Friday 26/02/2016
Lebanon’s PM Tammam Salam (R) speaks next to Information Minister Ramzi Jreij

LONDON - As the Lebanese govern­ment tries to salvage relations with long-time benefactor Saudi Ara­bia, the decision by Ri­yadh to cancel $4 billion in grants intended for the Lebanese military was lauded as a political and se­curity necessity by analysts in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia said it suspended the aid package due to the Leba­nese government’s failure to con­demn the January attacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran. The assistance was meant to give the poorly equipped and underfunded Lebanese Army a much-needed boost, particularly as it faces spillover from the war in neighbouring Syria.

Despite the abrupt timing of the announcement, which caught many in the Lebanese political are­na by surprise, the action by Saudi Arabia was seen by a number of pundits, especially in the Gulf re­gion, as expected and a matter of regional security.

Joseph Kechichian, senior fel­low at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said the kingdom was not prepared to tolerate Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil pretending to speak for the entire country.

“Therefore they decided to pun­ish the country, particularly when the prime minister did not chastise his foreign minister,” Kechichian said.

Lebanon’s failure to condemn the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran set a legal prec­edent, he said.

“Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are founding members of the Arab League, which means… Lebanon is constitutionally committed, as well as bound by various Arab League resolutions, never to side against a fellow Arab country, so there­fore the votes that Gebran Bassil cast both in Cairo and in Jeddah on the assumption that Lebanon has a particular case did not go down well because this is a legal prece­dent and there were two votes cast and obviously one can tolerate one vote, but two is just too much,” Ke­chichian said.

Another factor highlighted by analysts was the fear of the Irani­an-backed Shia militia Hezbollah prospering from the Saudi grant. “The last two consecutive govern­ments and the former president have failed to curb Hezbollah’s in­fluence,” wrote Saudi analyst Ab­dulrahman al-Rashed.

Saudi aid could be misappropri­ated to serve Hezbollah’s agenda, Rashed said, because the military had failed disassociate itself from the Iran-backed militia. Hezbol­lah is widely seen as being much stronger than the Lebanese Army.

“Hezbollah dragged the army to areas like Arsal (north-east of Bei­rut) and then it used these forces to pursue (those) whom it described as terrorists from among the Syrian opposition,” Rashed wrote.

Writing in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Banoun put the blame on Lebanese politicians influenced by foreign parties, a veiled reference to Iran.

Banoun stressed that those poli­ticians are hostile towards Saudi Arabia and have tried to minimise the role it played in Lebanon’s re­covery from the civil war after the 1989 Taif agreement, which ended the Lebanese civil war.

“The Saudi government has en­dured a lot from such adolescent politicians who have sought to raise suspicions towards Saudi Arabia’s intentions and political and eco­nomic role [in Lebanon],” he added.

Meanwhile, Gulf Cooperation Council states quickly supported the Saudi decision to cancel the multibillion-dollar grant.

In a strongly worded statement, the United Arab Emirates said the Saudi decision came after Lebanon repeatedly took negative offensive and bizarre positions against pan- Arab consensus, despite contacts with relevant Lebanese authorities.

“Despite the historic and tradi­tional support extended to Leba­non by the Kingdom of Saudi Ara­bia and other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as hosting a large number of Lebanese people and despite the fact that these states stood by Lebanon, during the hard circum­stances it went through, we regret to see these negative trends that are not representative of the ma­jority of the Lebanese people,” the statement said.

GCC member Bahrain issued a similar statement of support.

The aid package would have been the biggest in Lebanon’s history, in­volving a four-year, $3 billion Saudi pledge to buy French arms for the Lebanese military and a $1 bil­lion support deal for the Lebanese police. There had been a number of delays to the deal since its an­nouncement in 2013, the reasons of which were a source of major speculation in the Lebanese media.