Could Saudi pressure tip Lebanon's political balance?

Saudi Arabia has lost patience with a country where Iran-backed Hezbollah holds an effective veto.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Relatives and comrades of Hezbollah senior commander, Ali Fayyad, carry pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah during his funeral procession in the Lebanese village of Ansar on Wednesday.

The Saudis have long had an indulgent attitude toward Lebanon, helping mediate between militias during the civil war years three decades ago, pumping in money and investments to bolster Beirut’s teetering economy, and spending lavish vacation time in the mountains and on the beaches of this tiny Mediterranean country.

Its motives were partly Saudi munificence but also – as the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has grown hotter – a regional strategy to keep Lebanon within its ranks.

But lately Saudi Arabia has embarked on a new tougher policy toward Lebanon that has dragged the country against its will into the heart of the bitter regional rivalry between the desert kingdom and the Islamic Republic.

In the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia has suspended a military assistance program to the Lebanese Army that was worth more than $3 billion, slapped travel advisories against its citizens visiting the country, closed a Saudi bank operating in Lebanon, and expelled a number of Lebanese working in the kingdom.

The Saudis and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council formally declared Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the militant Iran-backed Shiite organization, a terrorist group on Wednesday. Bahrain and Yemen have recently accused Iran and Hezbollah of setting up “terrorist” cells in their countries.

“The Saudis have lost patience with Lebanon and [Riyadh’s Lebanese Sunni] allies. They have been giving Lebanon all this support for years but got nothing in return," says a prominent Lebanese businessman who recently visited Riyadh and met with top Saudi officials. "Hezbollah still dominates everything in Lebanon."

For Lebanon, a difficult balance

Saudi ire toward Lebanon was inflamed in January when Gibran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, refused to endorse an Arab League declaration accusing Hezbollah of interference in Arab countries. Even Arab allies of Iran, such as Iraq, backed the statement. Mr. Bassil is a member of a political coalition led by Hezbollah, and his decision was broadly condemned by his Saudi-backed opponents in Beirut.

Still, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies have put the Lebanese government in a quandary. Hezbollah is the strongest political entity in Lebanon, with a potent parliamentary presence and seats in the government. The Shiite party fields a powerful army that is embroiled in the bloody battlefields of Syria to aid its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Lebanon traditionally follows a policy of neutrality in the region’s squabbles and seeks to remain within the Arab consensus to avoid aggravating sectarian divisions within its own society. In the past, Saudi Arabia has understood Lebanon’s sectarian frailties and lavished financial support on its allies here as a bulwark against Hezbollah’s rising power and the growing influence of Iran.

But now the Saudis have changed tack, tiring of the inaction of its allies and apparently forcing Lebanon to make the impossible choice of either siding with the rest of the Arab world or with Iran. That has left many Lebanese politicians, especially Saudi Arabia’s allies, tying themselves in knots to try and find a way of appeasing Riyadh while not forcing Hezbollah’s hand and risking a showdown in Lebanon.

“We are witnessing a difficult and dangerous period. We have to be patient, behave in a rational way, and look at what is going on around us in Iraq and Syria,” says Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and close Saudi ally who heads the mainly Sunni Future Movement.

Opportunity for Iran?

Hezbollah, meanwhile, has voiced defiance toward the Saudi moves. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said in a speech Tuesday that the Saudi suspension of the military aid package marked a “new phase of political conflict” between his party and the oil-rich Sunni kingdom.

Nasrallah has been an outspoken critic of the year-long Saudi war against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen and recently has been spotlighting the emerging contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a highly sensitive subject.

“When you do that, you are basically taking aim at Saudi credentials for leadership of the Sunni world.… That’s what has really annoyed the Saudis,” says Ali Rizk, a Lebanese political analyst with Iran’s English-language Press TV.

It remains unclear what long-term impact the Saudi measures will have on a country that is experiencing zero percent growth, that has lacked a president for nearly two years, has a weak and divided government, suffers from an enduring crisis over garbage disposal, and is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.

Some opponents of Hezbollah fear that Saudi Arabia’s abandoning of Lebanon will simply open the door for greater Iranian influence. Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Monday that Iran was willing to invest $10 billion in Lebanon to bolster the Lebanese Army and promote water and electricity infrastructure projects.

Blessing in disguise?

Sunni allies of Riyadh voice confidence that the spat will blow over. And Riad Salameh, the governor of the Lebanese central bank, has sought to assure a nervous business community that there are no signs Saudi Arabia is planning to withdraw its banking deposits from Lebanon.

As for the Lebanese Army, which stood to gain from the planned purchase of more than $3 billion of mainly French military hardware, the suspension of the Saudi package may not be as serious as initially thought. The deal, which was signed in 2014, was intended to bolster the Lebanese Army’s capabilities as it defends an area of northeast Lebanon where hundreds of militants belonging to the extremist Islamic State (IS) group and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, are holed up in mountains.

Many Lebanese politicians have publicly lamented the suspension of the arms package, and the French government is attempting to persuade Saudi Arabia to open up its wallet again. But others are saying that the failure of the deal was a blessing in disguise given that much of the equipment due to be delivered, which included helicopters, coastal patrol vessels, artillery guns, and vehicles, was unnecessary and would be costly to maintain.

“In the war against ISIS, we don’t need three 56-meter boats and we don’t need medium-lift helicopters that cost $7,000 an hour to run when we already have nine but only fly three,” says a Lebanese politician familiar with the deal.

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