Saudi wake-up call for Lebanon

Friday 26/02/2016
Saad Hariri overseeing a petition drive to express support to Riyadh

BEIRUT - Lebanon was probably in need for a wake-up call after slipping into a lam­entable political paralysis that has prevented it from electing a president for more than two years. Surprisingly, the shock came from a traditional main sup­porter: Saudi Arabia.

Fed up with mounting and heated attacks by Iran-backed Hezbollah against Saudi Arabia and its ruling Saud family and dissatisfied with Lebanon’s foreign policy distanc­ing the tiny country from their Arab arena, the Saudis decided to sus­pend military aid worth $4 billion to Lebanon.

The February 19th move, backed by the other Gulf countries, sent shock waves in all directions and raised multiple fears that punitive measures may follow.

“The situation actually is reflect­ing a cumulative and tense climate that is not agreeable to both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon,” said Shafik Masri, political sciences professor at the American University of Bei­rut.

It was not the first time that Hez­bollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at­tacked Saudi Arabia but his recent and most severe criticism of the rul­ing Saudi family, which he accused of dragging the entire region into war, was hard to swallow.

However, the “explosive point”, as Masri explained, was the conduct of Lebanese Foreign Minister Ge­bran Bassil at two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers, who strongly condemned the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January. Bassil, whose Christian Free Patriotic Movement is an ally of Hezbollah, failed to join the “Arab consensus” condemning Iran.

The “new” Saudi Arabia simply did not accept that.

“Saudi Arabia today is more ag­gressive… Probably they thought there is a need for a shock here and they did it,” said Riad Tabba­rah, Lebanon’s former ambassador in Washington. “It was such a big shock that even Iran’s allies in Leba­non were forced to soften their tone and position.”

The issue is not simply a political one. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Lebanese work in Gulf countries and any punitive measure against them would undoubtedly affect the size of their remittances, which help shore up the Lebanese economy. It is estimated that $4 billion out of $7.5 billion in Lebanese remittances come from Gulf countries.

“The failure of renewing residen­cy and working permits of Leba­nese in the Gulf countries would be a big disaster,” Tabbarah told The Arab Weekly.

But Saudi Arabia, with its $1 bil­lion deposit in Lebanon’s Central Bank and other investments in the country, “does not want Lebanon to collapse,” he said. “Its target is not to punish Lebanon.”

The Saudi “shock” put the brakes on the anti-Gulf drive, according to Tabbarah, who noted that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia would like to reach the point of Sunni-Shia dis­cord in Lebanon.

The Saudi cabinet has reasserted the decision to halt military aid to Lebanon, but reaffirmed the king­dom’s “support of the Lebanese people, with all its sects”.

An informed source close to the pro-Saudi March 14 coalition in Lebanon dismissed the possibil­ity of “a security explosion” in the country following the Saudi move, which “is a reflection of the mount­ing Saudi-Iranian conflict”.

The source, however, explained that “political tensions and shaky economic conditions should be ex­pected”.

But what are the real motives be­hind the Saudi move, which came shortly after the return to Beirut of Sunni political leader Saad Hariri from self-imposed exile in Paris and Riyadh?

It is hard to advance a clear an­swer. One of the scenarios is that Riyadh has always showed under­standing to Lebanon’s particular situation because of Hezbollah’s military might but wants now to “bring back Lebanon to the Arab world and restore the political bal­ance” in the troubled country.

“Arab consensus is sacred. Those who escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia went too far in counting on the kingdom’s understanding of Lebanon’s peculiar situation,” Tab­barah noted. “Breaking Arab con­sensus is something Saudis could not tolerate.”

Although Hezbollah’s allies saw the Saudi move as a blow to Hariri and a sign of abandonment by his long-time protégé, Tabbarah said Hariri’s return was meant to “re­store the balance in Lebanon where there can be no winner or loser”.

The problem lies well with the “alliances in place in the region and how to manage them”, according to the well-informed source.

The Saudi move reflects more “a strategic decision, a strategic policy related to the geopolitics of the re­gion”, he said.

Lebanon, still without a presi­dent, should avoid the collapse of its cabinet as well so as not to plunge the country into chaos and pray that Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s efforts to appease Saudi Arabia succeed.