Saudi-Lebanese relations show signs of improvement, at least for now

In such a volatile context, Beirut must remain equidistant from regional powers.
Sunday 06/05/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) pose next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Paris, on April 10. (AFP)
Dispelling rumours. French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) pose next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Paris, on April 10. (AFP)

The Cedre conference in support of Lebanon’s economy stressed a revival of Saudi-Lebanese relations after the November crisis triggered by the resignation announcement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Riyadh in unclear circumstances. This newfound rapprochement, attributed by Saudi and Lebanese experts to Riyadh’s realisation that a vacuum played into Iran’s hand, will be tested by Hezbollah’s expanding regional role.

Saudi Arabia, for decades, has promoted its foreign policy agenda through mediation and chequebook diplomacy, from which Lebanon has profited immensely, with billions regularly pledged at the behest of Riyadh during the three Paris donor conferences.

Yet, extraordinary political changes in the Arab world from the “Arab spring” upheaval and Iranian expansionism in the region has led Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to break away from the monarchy’s political conservatism and adopt a more aggressive strategy towards Lebanon.

Riyadh’s pushback against Iran and Hezbollah contributed to a major political crisis in Lebanon with Hariri’s resignation announcement last November and tensions rising between the two capitals. The crisis ended with Hariri’s return to Lebanon after the apparent intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Relations appear to have normalised with the April Cedre conference. Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Byblos Bank in Lebanon, said Saudi Arabia reactivated a previous line of credit of $1 billion during the conference.

Other Gulf countries and Arab institutions followed suit, with the Islamic Development Bank pledging $750 million, the Kuwait Fund for Social and Economic Development $500 million, the Arab Development Fund $500 million with the possibility of raising it to $1 billion and Kuwait offering $180 million.

A selfie taken by Hariri with Crown Prince Mohammed and Moroccan King Mohammed VI following the conference aimed at dispelling rumours of bad blood while generating media buzz.

“With the Cedre conference, relations appear to be going back to normal, everyone wants to forget the Hariri episode,” Saudi analyst Muhammad Khashoggi said. Lebanese analyst Sami Nader concurred, pointing out that regional and international powers, including Saudi Arabia, have realised that Lebanon can neither be ignored nor “shunned because it will actually be the Iranians and Hezbollah that will fill the void.”

Over the past two decades, Hezbollah has morphed from a no-state paramilitary force into a semi-state actor, with its members playing an active role in parliament and in government. The 2008 Doha agreement granted the organisation and its Shia ally Amal a veto power on all government decisions.

The election of Hezbollah’s ally, Free Patriotic Movement Christian leader Michel Aoun to the presidency in 2016 strengthened Hezbollah’s hold on the country’s defence and foreign affairs dossiers. For the past two years, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has used Lebanon as a platform to threaten Saudi Arabia.

“Hezbollah’s involvement in regional conflicts and more specifically in nearby Yemen is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s first mistake has been to fail in applying its dissociation policy (from regional conflicts) with Nasrallah’s threats to Gulf countries. Secondly, we also know that both Iran and Hezbollah have helped the Yemeni Houthis build their missile capability now threatening Saudi Arabia,” said Nader.

Riyadh is still pursuing the war against the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of helping Houthi rebels and of playing a role in the ballistic missile attacks targeting Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi said one of the foreign policy problems faced by Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia is an over-reliance on US leadership when it comes to the Iranian dossier.

“The US State Department position is very fluid when it comes to (Iran’s role in) Syria and Lebanon. Washington does not have a clear policy on the matter and confusion is reigning in the White House, which has led to a power vacuum in these countries,” he said.

Saudi Arabia appears to have, at least for now, returned to its policy of supporting Lebanon’s official institutions. However, believing that Riyadh has forgiven and forgotten Lebanese antics is premature.

The Cedre conference is one sign of goodwill on Riyadh’s side that does not erase the November crisis and its economic fallout. The crisis, which resulted in more than $2.4 billion in withdrawals, financial sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, exposed Lebanon’s massive financial and economic vulnerabilities. “Lebanon is facing the possibility of total economic collapse,” warned Nader. In such a case, the country is in dire need of its friends.

In such a volatile context, Beirut must remain equidistant from regional powers and avoid giving the appearance of providing international legitimacy for Hezbollah. Such a stance will be difficult to maintain if Iran and its proxies provoke further escalation in Syria or Yemen.