Lebanon stirred up over Saudi decision to halt aid

Friday 26/02/2016
Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri

BEIRUT - Days after it suspended a $4 billion military aid package to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia stepped up pressure on Beirut by urging its citizens not to travel to the small Mediterranean country, a signal that Lebanese efforts to ap­pease their traditional Gulf backers have not been enough.

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain immediately followed the February 19th Saudi move, asking their citizens to keep away from Lebanon, which is suf­fering from internal political tur­moil compounded by fallout from the war in neighbouring Syria. The UAE also said it would reduce its diplomatic representation in Bei­rut. Bahrain asked its citizens in Lebanon to leave immediately.

The Gulf states’ measures came a day after the Lebanese national unity government, which includes both friends and foes of Saudi Arabia, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah, unanimously adopted a statement that stressed the need to mend ties with Riyadh. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who was entrusted with this mis­sion, announced a Gulf tour that should take him first to Saudi Ara­bia.

Lebanon, the statement said, would not forget Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the Taif agreement that brought an end to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, its role in rebuild­ing the country and its support for Lebanon’s “financial, economic, military and security institutions”.

Saudi Arabia, concerned over ties between Lebanon and Riyadh’s regional rival Iran, denounced Bei­rut’s failure to join the “Arab con­sensus” condemning January’s at­tacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran. It clearly blamed the strained ties on Hezbollah’s in­creasingly dominant influence over Lebanon.

Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned from the cabinet on February 21st, accusing Hezbollah of “dominating the government’s decisions” and calling on the gov­ernment to “at least apologise to the (Saudi) kingdom, its leadership and people”.

Rifi specifically blamed Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also president of the Chris­tian Free Patriotic Movement, a key Hezbollah ally, for not backing Saudi resolutions against Iran dur­ing meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers.

Prior to the Lebanese cabinet meeting, Hezbollah tried to de­flect blame from its role in Leba­nese politics by attributing the Saudi decision to Riyadh’s own budgetary pressures. In earlier statements, Hezbollah Secretary- General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Turkey and Saudi Arabia of “dragging the region into war”. His comments contributed to Saudi discontent.

Salam reconfirmed Lebanon’s condemnation of the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and urged Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to reconsider the suspension of military aid.

Sunni political leader Saad Hariri was quick to gather politicians, businessmen and followers at his Beirut residence to express grati­tude to Riyadh and urge the Leba­nese to sign a document of “soli­darity with Arab unanimity”. He is hoping for 1 million signatures.

Hezbollah, however, did not seem ready to apologise to Saudi Arabia which, with other Gulf states, has listed the Iran-backed group as a terrorist organisation and accused it of planting cells to destabilise Gulf Cooperation Coun­cil (GCC) countries.