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