Saudi Arabia and UAE urge citizens out of Lebanon after kidnappings

The growing spillover from the Syrian civil war, which included the kidnapping of over 30 Syrians in Lebanon today, prompted the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to tell their citizens to leave Lebanon.

Khalil Hassan/Reuters
Shi'ite masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan, gather at the Meqdad family's association headquarters in the southern suburbs in Beirut, on August 15.

Both the regional power games over Syria's civil war and the repercussions for the people of that country and the region are heating up.

Today, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar ordered their citizens out of Lebanon after 30 Syrians were kidnapped in the country in retaliation for a Lebanese Shiite's kidnapping by rebel fighters in Syria.

Saudi, Qatar and the UAE are Sunni monarchies and support the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose regime draws much of its support from the minority Alawite sect he belongs to. Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite political party and militia in Lebanon, supports Mr. Assad, as does its patron Iran. The Saudi Embassy in Beirut particularly noted the threat of kidnapping by Shiite groups in the country. 

Lebanon in the summer is a favorite destination for wealthy citizens of the Gulf monarchies, with its beaches and lax attitudes toward drinking alcohol and relations between the sexes. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends in a few days, and the holidays that follow often provide a tourism boost, with Beirut bars and nightclubs packed with wealthy Gulf Arabs.

While a financial blow for businesses in Beirut isn't nice, the warnings from the two Gulf states are a reminder of how much tension there is in the region, and concern it could spark major problems in Lebanon, which has recovered remarkably from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, but still remains a nation split along confessional lines, with Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze all maintaining their own political fiefdoms and militias.

Writing on the kidnappings of the Syrians, who their abductors alleged were members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), Nick Blanford explained the Lebanese context today:

Members of the Meqdad clan, a powerful Shiite tribe from the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, announced today that the "military wing" of the family had abducted more than 20 Syrians in Lebanon whom they alleged were fighters with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Meqdads said that the abductions were in response to the kidnapping, allegedly by the FSA, of Hassan Selim Meqdad in Damascus at the beginning of the week. The FSA accused Hassan Meqdad of being a member of Lebanon's militant Shiite group Hezbollah, a strong supporter of the Assad regime. Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied the claims, with the latter saying that he was an employee of a Lebanese bank...

The Meqdad clan does not have a formal armed faction, although some members of the family do serve with Hezbollah and, like all Bekaa Valley clans, they are fierecly independent, live by strict tribal codes of honor and solidarity, and scorn the authority of the Lebanese state. It would be a rare Meqdad who does not own at least one gun.

Lebanon's war was a playground for proxy battles between regional and global powers, and Syria's war increasingly looks like that today. Further, the Syrian regime was a major player in Lebanon's war and occupied the country until 2005. Assad retains an extensive intelligence network and many allies in the country. If Lebanese politicians and warlords aren't careful, conflict could spread. The country is heavily armed and many of its gunmen are far, far away from formal state control.

Tensions were heightened today by reports that all or some of 11 Lebanese Shiites, kidnapped while traveling home after a pilgrimage to Iran by rebel supporters of the Free Syrian Army in May, were killed by Syrian government airstrikes on rebel positions. One Lebanese television station reported all 11 were killed while an affiliate later reported that just four of them were killed, in Aleppo's Azaz neighborhood.

This story was updated after first posting to include that Qatar has also asked citizens to leave Lebanon.

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