King Salman of Saudi Arabia has a long-standing beef with Hezbollah. Not only does the Islamist militant organization embody Iran’s success in dominating Lebanon, in the monarch's eyes, but it is also sending its tentacles into other battlefields in the Middle East, in which the Saudis have political interests. These include both Syria and Yemen.
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On Friday the Saudis imposed sanctions on four Lebanese-owned companies that are suspected of supporting Hezbollah, in particular in the realm of purchasing sophisticated electronic equipment. Two of the companies are based in China, with the others operating from Lebanon. These companies already appear on the U.S. Department of Treasury’s blacklist.
It’s doubtful whether the Saudi decision will significantly impact the armament network of Hezbollah, spread out around the globe, but still this is an important political message, coming in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision earlier in the month to halt its $3-billion aid package to the government in Beirut. The funding was supposed to be used for equipping Lebanon’s army and police force with modern military hardware, purchased in France.
Three billion dollars is not a negligible amount, particularly at a time when the Lebanese government is mired in one of the most severe economic crises in its history. The Saudi decision worries the United States as well, since it was the one who initiated this package deal, with the goal of helping Lebanon to combat terror and ISIS, which is has several strongholds in that country.
However, Riyadh's considerations don’t always jibe with those of the United States, especially after Washington disappointed the Saudis by retracting its demand for toppling Syria's Bashar Assad, and by signing the nuclear accord with Iran, which was perceived by the Saudis as a betrayal of the traditional joint strategy it has used with America against Tehran.
The direct pretext for Saudi Arabia’s fury at Lebanon is the fact that the latter's foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, did not condemn last month's torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran at recent meetings of the Arab League and the council of Islamic states. Lebanon was the only Arab country to side with the Iranians, although its prime minister, Tammam Salam, personally condemned the embassy’s firebombing.
Lebanon’s conduct was attributed by the Saudis to the decisive influence wielded by Hezbollah over government policies there; the punitive measures were initiated even though they may further entrench Iran’s standing in Lebanon.
The Saudis haven't stopped at freezing funds but are also threatening to withdraw deposits they made in Lebanese banks 13 years ago – a move which helped stabilize the Lebanese lira. The Saudis are also “advising” their citizens not to travel to Lebanon and calling on those residing there to leave as soon as possible. Although Riyadh has clarified that it will not discontinue regular flights to Lebanon, one spokesman said that, “if there aren’t enough passengers there will be no point in sending planes there.”
This insinuation needs no interpretation: Lebanon is under a Saudi siege until it fully apologizes, in a manner satisfactory to the kingdom, for its position on the embassy torching. But the problem is that for Beirut to go along with this version of apology, it needs the consent of Hezbollah cabinet members. And they are in no rush to concede.
“Lebanon is not a Saudi or any other country’s princess. Saudi Arabia is the one that needs to apologize to Lebanon – not the other way around,” declared Naim Qassem, deputy to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, last weekend. In his view Riyadh is hurting Lebanon and its people instead of helping them fight Lebanon’s enemies.
In media outlets affiliated with Nasrallah, the Saudis are depicted as a Zionist branch in an Arab Middle East, and the royal house is subjected to heaps of invective.
The thing is that Saudi Arabia still has some heavy-duty moves to use against Lebanon. One is to expel hundreds of thousands of Lebanese workers who are employed in the kingdom, the other being recruitment of other Gulf states to join the boycott. If Riyadh decides to implement these measures, this could critically damage tourism, agricultural exports and even the Lebanese real estate market, much of which relies on investments by Gulf state companies.
This isn’t the first time Saudi Arabia has imposed sanctions on a recalcitrant Arab country. A year ago it broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, in opposition to Riyadh's policies. A few weeks later Qatar bowed its head and committed to stop its public support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their delegates, and relations between the two countries were restored more or less to normal levels.
The Lebanese case is more complicated, however, since the Lebanese government depends on Hezbollah. In other words, the arm-wrestling match will ultimately not take place between Riyadh and Beirut, but between Riyadh and Tehran. Based on the region’s history, it’s doubtful that Iran will behave as tiny Qatar did and bow to will of the kingdom. In fact, the result could actually be the opposite: Iran could become more entrenched in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia will be left with ineffective sanctions.