Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese Gambit
JERUSALEM—In the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia halted the transaction of a $3 billion arms deal to the Lebanese Army, led the Gulf states to caution their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, and removed some of its diplomats from service in Beirut. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has allowed open speculation that it might be considering banishing the half million Lebanese currently working in the Gulf states back to Lebanon, which would hurt the Lebanese economy to the tune of $7 billion a year.
These are serious geopolitical moves that will have serious geopolitical repercussions in Lebanon and reverberations in the regional war currently engulfing the Middle East.
If you think that claim is a little over the top, keep reading.
When you think about powerful forces inside Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah most likely comes to mind. Hezbollah is the most influential and commanding force in the country, rivaling that of the Lebanese Army. To keep up Hezbollah’s strategic advantage, Iran has channeled $200 million worth of weapons to the terrorist group each year since the late 1980s. A lot of money, sure—but it’s nothing compared to what Saudi Arabia has given Lebanon.
What is less widely known outside the Middle East is that Saudi Arabia’s gifts to Lebanon have far outstripped Iran’s to Hezbollah. By some estimates, Riyadh has provided around $70 billion worth of aid in the same time period.
Looking at the discrepancy in return for investment, one must say that the Saudi riyal has historically bought far less than the Iranian rial on the streets of Beirut.
Which is why, at least for many observers, this decision from Saudi Arabia to pull out of Lebanon was years in the making.
However, this begs the question: If Hezbollah has overpowered Saudi influence inside Lebanon for the past decade, why abandon the state at this moment? Especially considering Saudi Arabia is currently fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi takeover of Yemen and pouring weapons into Syria to support rebels against the Assad regime. Does it makes sense for Saudi Arabia to simply roll over and hand Lebanon to the Iranians without more of a fight?
There is more to this decision than just money. There are likely two reasons for Riyadh’s recent moves.
First, Saudi Arabia is sending a message to its allies inside Lebanon that they ought to do more to subvert Hezbollah’s grip on the nation. According to noted Lebanese commentator Tony Badran, “The overriding message in all of this is, we [the Saudis] are not going to pay for a state that is essentially run by Hezbollah and does what it wants.” While it is unlikely Saudi Arabia desires an armed uprising against Hezbollah by its Lebanese supporters, there are many political steps that could be taken in order to win back Saudi affections.
The Saudis already have the support of the main Sunni block inside the government known as the March 14 coalition. But, much to Saudi Arabia’s dislike, a number of powerful Christian political parties are in league with Hezbollah. Demographically, Christians make up about 40 percent of the population giving their government representatives the opportunity to tilt the scales toward Hezbollah or the March 14 coalition at will. It’s likely that Saudi moves to exit the country will put huge pressure on some of these Christian groups to switch their allegiance and weaken Hezbollah’s grip on power.
Second, Saudi Arabia senses that Hezbollah is in a weakened state with its Shiite base inside Lebanon. Until the start of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah could claim that its existence was entirely necessary to counter the strategic threat posed by Israel at its southern border. Because of this, the Sunni leadership has historically given Hezbollah a bit of a pass. It reasoned that even though Hezbollah was funded by Iran, at least it was protecting the Lebanese people.
That myth was destroyed in 2012 when Hezbollah’s leadership answered Iran’s call to cross into Syrian territory to support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. In supporting Iran outside its own territory, Hezbollah exposed itself as a stooge of the ayatollah rather than a protector of Lebanon. Four years later, Hezbollah is still in Syria, fighting a war on foreign turf that only increases the likelihood that Sunni terrorist groups will cross the Lebanese border and bring bloodshed to Lebanon’s streets. Furthermore, with many of their sons dying on foreign soil, some Shiite families in Lebanon are not as ardent Hezbollah supporters as they once were.
Combine these two factors, and it seems Saudi Arabia is not abandoning Lebanon, but rather trying a different, though dangerous, tactic to gain more strategic advantage in its power struggle with Iran.
The move is dangerous because, while Saudi Arabia does not want civil war to come to Lebanon, removing its long-standing financial support also removes one of the greatest stabilizing forces in the volatile nation. Already, Lebanon has taken on more Syrian refugees per capita than any other nation (currently every fourth person in Lebanon is a refugee). For more than a year, the country’s government has barely functioned well enough to work out how to remove the nation’s trash. And its national debt compared to gross domestic product is the worst of any nation on Earth.
Removing Saudi Arabia’s stabilizing influence at this time could be catastrophic. Hence, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric weighed in last week saying, “It is important that there be continued international support for the Lebanese Armed Forces and for the stability of Lebanon.” Even Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in Lebanon, is worried about what might happen. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said this week, “If you have a problem with us, you can continue doing so—but what does the rest of the country have to do it with it?”
It’s hard to see how Saudi Arabia’s temporary moves away from Lebanon won’t further destabilize the nation at the most dangerous of times. Saudi Arabia no doubt realizes this potentiality, but probably sees the current bout with Iran across the Middle East as being so existential that it is willing to shake things up. If Saudi Arabia were to eventually strengthen its position in Lebanon at the expense of Hezbollah, then Iran’s hold on Syria would also diminish. In such an event, the current Saudi gambit in Lebanon would prove a game changer.
To see where events in Lebanon are prophesied to lead, and to learn what will happen to Iran and Saudi Arabia, read “Why You Need to Watch Lebanon” by Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry.