AS SAUDI ARABIA and Iran jostle for power in the Middle East, Lebanon has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. Saudi Arabia has long been chummy with Lebanon’s Sunni politicians and some of its Christians. Iran supports Lebanese Shia, not least through Hizbullah, a militia-cum-political party. It has also snuggled up to some Lebanese Christian groups. Nonetheless, an uneasy calm prevailed between Lebanon and the two regional powers. Apparently no longer.
On February 19th Saudi Arabia said it had suspended $4 billion in funding (for the French and Americans) to train and equip the Lebanese army and security forces. Ostensibly the kingdom is angry at Hizbullah, and therefore Iran’s influence, which they see as exemplified by Lebanon’s failure to condemn an attack in January on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia then warned its citizens against travelling to the tiny nation and accused Hizbullah of drug smuggling into the kingdom and sending mercenaries to Yemen and Syria. On March 2nd the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council designated Hizbullah a terrorist organisation.
Hizbullah and Iran are certainly amassing power in the Middle East, often in unsavoury ways. They have propped up Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s blood-spattered despot, provided men and weapons to help Iraq fight Islamic State and are thought to be aiding Yemen’s rebel Houthis. But although in Lebanon Hizbullah has been blocking the nomination of a new president, it has done little new to ignite Saudi ire there. The move probably has more to do with a bolder—and often clumsy—foreign policy under King Salman and his son Muhammad. Their fear of Iran has bordered on panic, not least since Iran concluded a nuclear deal with America and other powers.
The recent Saudi moves against Lebanon seem amateurish. Even if Lebanese parties wanted to, they could do little to diminish the role of Hizbullah, which acts as a state within the state and also dominates the government. “Saudi Arabia sometimes acts with bombast and violence that makes it look like the Donald Trump of the Arab World,” says Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut.
The result is likely to be that the Saudis lose influence in Lebanon, possibly to Iran. The squabble risks destabilising a divided nation that is already buckling under the weight of Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s politicians, divided by their attitudes to Saudi Arabia and Iran, among many other things, are already trading accusations. Hizbullah and the Future Movement, the main Sunni party led by Saad Hariri, the son of a revered former prime minister, may call off their regular meetings.
This probably makes Lebanon less secure. It is facing threats from the war next door in Syria and from terrorists inspired by it at home. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion. Many Lebanese fear that if the row escalates, the economy will suffer. They worry that the Gulf will kick out Lebanese residents, who send home hefty remittances. Saudis and other Gulf spenders may well ignore the travel warnings, and still spend their money on holidays in freewheeling Beirut, but far fewer have come since the carnage started in Syria.
It does not look like the squall will blow over. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, ramped up the rhetoric against the Al Sauds on March 1st, accusing them of crimes and massacres. Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist, does not think the kingdom will back down. “Any rise in Iran’s role will hurt the Lebanese more than us,” he says.
Hizbullah has even suggested that Saudi Arabia has cut the cash because it is going bankrupt thanks to low oil prices. Loth to miss an opportunity, Iran has offered to make up the money. The Iranians’ aim may be simply to tweak royal Saudi noses; they can barely afford such a sum.
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