Alex Rowell

Riyadh’s wrath

Furious at both Hezbollah and March 14, the new Saudi leadership is fundamentally reassessing its Lebanon policy

SAUDI ARABIA, MECCA : A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz delivering a speech at the Royal Palace in Mecca on September 24, 2015

Beginning with its surprise suspension of $4 billion in pledged aid to the Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces on February 19, Saudi Arabia has undertaken an extraordinary set of punitive measures against Lebanon and Lebanese nationals, including warning its own citizens against traveling to the country (a step later emulated by the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait); designating several Lebanese companies and individuals as “terrorists;” and firing at least 90 Lebanese expatriates from their jobs in the Kingdom.

Most recently, speculation has mounted that Saudi and other Gulf states could also withdraw their deposits in Lebanon’s central bank (said to amount to around $900 million out of Lebanon’s total foreign reserves of over $37 billion), while Saudi sources told NOW investment from the Kingdom in Lebanon had likely ceased already.

“I’m sure a Saudi businessman, even without receiving a telephone call from his government […] is very much reluctant to invest more in Lebanon right now,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal.

Officially, the trigger for this sudden deterioration in Riyadh-Beirut ties was the refusal by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to sign a recent Arab League statement condemning Iran and Hezbollah in the wake of the January attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition subsequently blamed the loss of Saudi’s $4 billion donation on the Party of God, which it accused of forcing its ally Bassil’s hand. Hezbollah has substantially escalated its rhetoric in general against the Kingdom in recent weeks, with leader Hassan Nasrallah calling it a “takfiri and terrorist” state and mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism in a January speech, drawing repeated chants of “Death to the Saud family!” from the audience. Responding to calls for an apology to Saudi Friday, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Naim Qassem said it was Saudi who ought to apologize to Lebanon: “Saudi Arabia is the one that attacked us, we did not attack it.”

Yet knowledgeable sources told NOW the Saudi measures were just as much about sending a message to the Kingdom’s ostensible allies in March 14, who have failed to meet the expectations of the new Saudi leadership that took over following the death of King Abdullah in January 2015. Specifically, NOW was told the new King Salman, along with his highly influential son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, are deeply disappointed with what they see as a lack of meaningful opposition to Hezbollah from Saudi partners in Lebanon.

“I think the Kingdom got fed up with Lebanese taking Saudi Arabia for granted, [fed up] that even our Lebanese friends just assume that Saudi Arabia will not let go of Lebanon, will continue in supporting Lebanon, despite them not taking a decisive positon regarding Hezbollah,” said Khashoggi.

“They complain about [Hezbollah] when they come to Saudi Arabia, they all realize that Hezbollah is threatening the Lebanese constitution, Lebanese authority, but at the same time they are not doing anything about it.”

In particular, two recent developments left the Saudis’ “blood boiling,” according to a Lebanese political source, citing information from people close to Muhammad bin Salman, who requested anonymity to speak freely. These were the release on bail in January of bomb-plotting former minister Michel Samaha, and the nomination by March 14’s two leading factions of presidential candidates notoriously hostile to the Kingdom.

“March 14 has failed to grasp that Salman and Muhammad bin Salman have a new management style,” the source told NOW. “What did they expect from Saudi, when one of their allies [Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea] backed the presidential candidacy of [Free Patriotic Movement leader] Michel Aoun, a major opponent of Saudi, and their other key ally [Future Movement head Saad al-Hariri] one-upped him by nominating [Marada Movement leader] Sleiman Franjieh, another enemy of the Kingdom?”



An opening for Tehran?

Both the Lebanese source and Khashoggi told NOW the Saudi move was no short-term phenomenon, but rather a fundamental reassessment of policy priorities in Lebanon and, indeed, the region overall.

“Saudi Arabia is throwing everything in the air, and saying, ‘I’m no longer going to finance hostile Lebanon’,” said Khashoggi. Asked what, if anything, could persuade Riyadh to reconsider its decision, Khashoggi replied, “If the miracle happens, and a national united front against Hezbollah is formed in Lebanon, that would bring Saudi Arabia to the support of that national front.”

With a “downsized Saudi role in Lebanon,” as Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst David Schenker termed it, thus potentially the new reality, some figures, including Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, are concerned the Lebanese state will only grow weaker and more susceptible to the influence of Hezbollah and Iran henceforth. Already, one unconfirmed report in the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper claims Iran stands ready to more than double Saudi’s previous bid, offering as much as $10 billion in expenditure on Lebanon’s army, water and electricity infrastructure, and waste management programs. Whether such a dramatic riposte truly comes to fruition, the worries of many in Lebanon were summarized by the TV presenter and critic of Hezbollah, Nadim Koteich, who recently met King Salman, and later wrote:

“I fear the Kingdom may make the same strategic mistake with Lebanon that it made with Iraq, leaving it prey to Iran in its entirety.”

Saudi has taken an extraordinary set of punitive measures against Lebanon in the last ten days (AFP / SPA / HO)

Knowledgeable sources told NOW the Saudi measures were just as much about sending a message to the Kingdom’s ostensible allies in March 14, who have failed to meet the expectations of the new Saudi leadership"

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    About time the Saudis faced problems head on, instead of the fearful cajoling and cavorting to their enemies, and buying friends with money. For decades they acquiesced to what Yasser Arafat did to Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, pumping him millions to destabilize Lebanon, as long as he kept his "revolution" away from Saudi Arabia. Then it was Syria's tormenting of Lebanon that the Saudis kept going as long as Assad stayed away. Even the killing of Rafik Hariri, Saudi's top poodle in Lebanon did not make Saudi Arabia stand against what was going on in Lebanon. For decades, even as Hezbollah (and Iran behind it) was metastasizing everywhere, Saudi kept propping up the charade of resistance to the Zionist enemy. funding Like Rafik Hariri, the Saudis are waking up too late. Their wrath might as well turn domestically because their turn is coming. For us Lebanese, we are so deep in the hole that only radical surgery will extract the many cancers that Saudi Arabia and Syria left us. After nurturing the monster, now the Saudis want to take it down? Just as they are succeeding in Yemen, their success in Lebanon will not spare us, because again, the Lebanese will pay the price.

    March 1, 2016