Anxious times for Lebanese expats in the Gulf

Anxious times for Lebanese expats in the Gulf
4 min read
18 Mar, 2016
Comment: Around half a million Lebanese work in the Gulf, but the deportation of suspected Hizballah supporters to Beirut this week underlines how vulnerable life is for the diaspora here.
Nimr's execution by Saudi Arabia led to protests among Shia across the Gulf [AFP]
What is happening to Lebanese expats in the GCC states is an old story about what happens to ordinary people when they get caught up in big-power politics, over which they have no control and, despite allegations to the contrary, most likely have had little or no engagement with.

Figures vary but at least 500,000 Lebanese citizens live and work in the Gulf.

Most work as professionals in sectors like medicine, finance, media and public relations. They send between $5 and $7 billion in remittances annually to their families back home. By all accounts, like most Gulf expats, they live quiet lives and eschew political engagement. But in the febrile cauldron of the Middle East, all that is beginning to change.

On March 14 in the Bahraini capital, Manama, seven Lebanese families were unceremoniously and very hurriedly deported to Beirut. They were accused of supporting Hizballah. Children were pulled out of schools, medical concerns overlooked, jobs lost.

What had been a stable and secure life was overnight turned upside-down.

In the United Arab Emirates, seven people, three of whom were said to be Lebanese, were put on trial in Abu Dhabi, charged with spying for Hizballah. The previous month, three Lebanese citizens, including one with dual Canadian citizenship, were brought to court in the UAE accused of forming a Hizballah cell.
The fever of fear is fed by near daily reports in the Lebanese press of looming expulsions

All of this came hard on the heels of Lebanon's refusal to join other Arab states in condemning the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

That decision, taken very much in public at an Arab League emergency meeting in Cairo in early January, enraged Riyadh.

Led by the Saudis, the GCC states declared Hizballah - the Lebanese Shia movement whose political wing is a leading opposition force and whose armed wing has forged an image of "resistance" against Israel and Western imperialism - a terrorist organisation, and urged citizens not to travel to Lebanon.

There are as-yet-unsubstantiated claims that the GCC has drawn up lists of Lebanese citizens it plans to deport for allegedly supporting Hizballah. The fever of fear is fed by near daily reports in the Lebanese press of looming expulsions in countries such as Kuwait.

The Saudis, who over the years have poured billions into holding Lebanon together, also pulled the plug on a $3 billion deal to purchase weapons for the Lebanese army and another $1billion intended to assist in security - in a country that is caught in the cross-hairs of regional rivalries and the war in Syria.

They made the argument, and it is a fair one, that weapons they bought for the army might just well wind up in the hands of Hizballah, which fights alongside Assad's troops in Syria.

Now, the shadow of suspicion that has fallen across the Lebanese diaspora in the Gulf has left the community feeling anxious and worried. As one expat, who did not want to be named, lamented: "The big mistake I made was that I came to an Arab country."

Fanning the fears of Lebanese expats is the thought that under cover of the security threat allegedly posed by Hizballah, the Gulf states will begin to carry out their oft-discussed and long delayed mass removal of foreign workers, a project that begins with them.

Rather ominously, when queried about the kingdom's youth unemployment in his January Economist interview, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had this to say:

"We do not expect [unemployment] to grow, we believe it will decline [but] at the same time I have reserves now, ten million jobs that are being occupied by non-Saudi employees that I can resort to at any time of my choosing."

The Lebanese could easily become a convenient lightning rod for local discontent over the lack of jobs and a useful deflector of criticism of the government's largely failed policies to get more Saudi youth into work.
Equally damaging, the remittance pipeline would be shut off

Roughly 300,000 Lebanese expats live in Saudi Arabia. Their removal would no doubt create jobs for Saudis, but it would put a massive strain on Lebanon, a country of just 4.4 million already staggering under the burden of sheltering more than a million Syrian refugees.

Equally damaging, the remittance pipeline would be shut off abruptly - with huge and unmeasurable consequences for Riyadh's economy.

The solution in Saudi terms is a simple one: Lebanon must condemn Iran and Hizballah. But that is not going to happen. Lebanon is tied far too deeply to Hizballah to be able to extricate itself and follow their erstwhile benefactor's bidding.

And so the Lebanese diaspora in the Gulf finds itself caught in a battle over which it can have no influence, wondering just how far Saudi anger will go - and how much more punishment may yet be meted out.

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.