In Hezbollah's grip, Lebanon-Saudi rift is here to stay

In Hezbollah's grip, Lebanon's rift with Saudi is here to stay
5 min read
11 Jan, 2022
Amidst an ongoing political row between Lebanon and Gulf states and Hezbollah's tightening grip on Lebanese politics, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will recant its hardline position on the crisis-hit nation anytime soon, writes Mona Alami.
Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Bukhari, who has been recalled amidst a political row, shakes hands with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November of 2017. [Getty]

Lebanon’s apparent breakthrough with Saudi Arabia after the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the Kingdom should not be interpreted as a change in its foreign policy toward Lebanon. No concrete measures toward Lebanon have been taken since Saudi recalled its ambassador Walid Boukhari from the country last month, besides the promise of the creation of a joint humanitarian aid initiative between France and Saudi towards Lebanon.

Lebanon’s diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia was sparked last October after Communication Minister George Kordahi criticised Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war. Saudi Arabia gave Lebanon’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country, recalled its own ambassador and suspended all imports from Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait were quick to follow suit.

Kordahi, a member of the Christian Marada party allied with Hezbollah, refused to resign for over a month until Macron convinced Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati that French intervention could end the crisis.

The French President visited Saudi Arabia in early December, mediating a call between Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman (MBS) and Prime Minister Mikati in a bid to end the diplomatic dispute that led to additional sanctions on Beirut by Gulf states.

"Saudi Arabia’s relations with Lebanon remain extremely problematic due to Hezbollah’s growing hegemony over the political system, which led to the loss of Saudi influence over the country"

Despite Mikati’s enthusiastic remarks about his call with the Saudi crown prince and labelling the short conversation as “an important step” towards restoring Gulf ties, the call was just a way to pay lip service to France. 

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Lebanon remain extremely problematic due to Hezbollah’s growing hegemony over the political system, which led to the loss of Saudi influence over the country. Recent remarks by Hezbollah leader accusing Saudi Arabia of terrorism promise to further inflame tensions between the two countries. 

Saudi Arabia had long been one of Lebanon’s strongest allies, investing billions of dollars in reconstruction, education and direct financial investments. Between 2006 and 2008, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—in response to reconstruction needs following Israel’s war on Lebanon—deposited $2.5 billion in Lebanon’s central bank. Additionally, between 2003 and 2015, 76 percent of foreign direct investment in Lebanon came from the Gulf states. 

Despite these massive investments, since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri - Saudi’s man in Lebanon -  by Hezbollah, Lebanon has increasingly gravitated towards the orbit of Iran

Today, Hezbollah and its allies hold significant power in Lebanese government and politics. Hezbollah has succeeded in consolidating power between several of Lebanon’s various political factions. The election of President Michel Aoun, whose Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has a long-standing alliance with Hezbollah, gave Hezbollah a comfortable majority in government. Additional understandings with the Christian Marada Movement and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party further strengthened its grip on Lebanon’s political system. 

Lebanon and Saudi relations also reflect geopolitical confrontation between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia amid negotiations that may not be doing so well, especially since the escalation in fighting in Yemen. 

Even more crucial in causing the Saudi-Lebanese rift is Hezbollah’s involvement in the Yemen war, according to a Hezbollah expert deployed in Yemen. 

Hezbollah is a loyal proxy to Iran in the region, where the group has morphed into a flexible and lethal regional military instrument for Tehran. Speaking to this author, a Hezbollah expert operating in Yemen boasted about the militant group sending 100-200 military experts to Yemen to assist in missile launching operations (directed against Saudi Arabia) and provide tactical assistance. He added during recent Iran nuclear talks, Hezbollah aided Yemeni Houthis to bomb Saudi Arabia to send a strong message to the US and their Arab allies.  

French intervention will not be able to improve long term relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia still cannot accept the assassination of their long-time ally Rafik Hariri at the hands of Hezbollah. The new government headed by PM Mikari remains dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, and previous governments of the same kind have only worsened the rivalry between Gulf countries and Lebanon over the years. 

Saudi Arabia has largely put an end to its financial support to Lebanon: in May it ended a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese army and banned Saudi nationals from travelling to Lebanon. This has significantly affected Lebanon’s foreign currency remittances in Lebanon’s beleaguered financial system, as Gulf tourism has historically accounted for a significant portion of the tourism industry in Lebanon.

"Even if Kordahi’s setback appears to have been overcome, and a much needed humanitarian aid initiative is put in place, Saudi Arabia will not recant on its hardline position on Lebanon as long as Hezbollah politically dominates the country"

The crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon will not suddenly recede. Even if Kordahi’s setback appears to have been overcome, and a much needed humanitarian aid initiative is put in place, Saudi Arabia will not recant on its hardline position on Lebanon as long as Hezbollah politically dominates the country.  

The proof is how the French-Saudi meeting ended with the two leaders calling on Lebanon to abide by the 1989 Taif Agreement, which established a power sharing system and ended the Lebanese civil war. This statement was followed by another requirement: “The need to restrict the possession of weapons to the legitimate state institutions,” while simultaneously strengthening the role of the Lebanese army so as to ensure state sovereignty. 

Under Hezbollah ascendance and in the absence of a regional deal, this is unlikely to happen.

Mona Alami is researcher and a journalist on Middle East political and economic affairs , with a special interest in non-state armed actors and gender issues.

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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.