Saudi Arabia’s Third “Shock and Awe” Move in Lebanon

On October 29th, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Beirut and suspended Lebanon’s imports into Saudi Arabia. These actions were aimed to force the resignation of a Lebanese minister who criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This latest Saudi escalation with Lebanon also has an impact on Lebanese domestic politics before election next spring. Most importantly, it reflects the increasing readiness of Riyadh to flex its diplomatic muscles and remind those concerned in Washington and Tehran that it has viable regional cards to play.

What triggered this diplomatic crisis is an interview by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi that was broadcast on October 26th but recorded on August 5th, before the formation of the new Lebanese government on September 10th. About the conflict in Yemen, Kordahi noted that, “It is time for this war to stop because it is absurd” and that the Houthis are “defending themselves in the face of external aggression.” On October 27th, the Saudi foreign ministry issued a restrained statement expressing “regret” over these “offensive” remarks and announced that the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon had handed an official letter of protest to the Lebanese foreign ministry. The Saudi expectation might have been that Kordahi would voluntarily resign, or be forced out; this was the case with former Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe, who resigned in May after saying during an interview that Gulf states were behind the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati said on October 27th that “These comments do not express the government nor the president’s (Michel Aoun) position on the Yemeni issue. Lebanon is committed to its ties with Arab countries.” This official position from the top leadership in Lebanon did not prevent further escalation. Riyadh announced punitive measures and withdrew its ambassador on October 29th; Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit by withdrawing their diplomatic representation from Beirut, asking Lebanese diplomats to leave their territories within 48 hours and demanding the immediate departure of their own citizens from Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates, however, did not ask the Lebanese ambassador to leave Abu Dhabi. All four Gulf states kept their consulate sections open in Lebanon and only Saudi Arabia suspended Lebanon’s exports to the kingdom. Oman and Qatar did not take any punitive measures against Lebanon, although their governments issued statements calling for de-escalation.

The Saudi Move in Context

The move by Riyadh reflects the evolution of Saudi policy in Lebanon that has been oscillating since 2016 between a passive and disruptive role. The most significant shift began in February 2016 when Riyadh declared the first round of punitive measures against Lebanon. These included announcing the intention to withdraw its cash deposits from the Central Bank of Lebanon and canceling a $4 billion grant to the Lebanese security forces. The moves came after the Lebanese government chose to abstain on an Arab League resolution condemning Iran for not preventing the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran on January 3, 2016, after Iranian protesters were angered by the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

The move by Riyadh reflects the evolution of Saudi policy in Lebanon that has been oscillating since 2016 between a passive and disruptive role.

Furthermore, in March 2016, Riyadh took the lead in having both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization.” Hezbollah’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been difficult since the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 and, also, when Hezbollah’s leadership began to suspect that Saudi Arabia incited Israel to attack Lebanon during the July 2006 war. This feud, set against the background of the growing regional role of Hezbollah, has shaped Lebanese-Saudi relations since 2016.

The second Saudi escalation targeted Riyadh’s own man in Beirut, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He was forcibly detained in November 2017 after being abruptly summoned to Saudi Arabia, where he was forced to announce his resignation in a televised address. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who officially came to power in June 2017, had begun a campaign of targeting wealthy Saudi royals and businessmen who were not among his supporters, which included Saad Hariri. By forcibly detaining Hariri, Riyadh was also responding to an October 2016 presidential deal in Lebanon that it did not sanction, one between Hariri and Hezbollah according to which Michel Aoun would be elected president and Hariri would return to the premiership. In 2017, Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan subtly criticized Hariri’s cabinet’s reluctance to take action against Hezbollah during a year in office by affirming that “there are those who will stop (Hezbollah) and make it return to the caves of South Lebanon.” However, the Trump Administration then managed to curb this Saudi surge in Lebanon and Riyadh decided to reengage Saad Hariri in March 2018, in what was then considered a potential Saudi comeback to Lebanese politics. The Lebanese uprising of 2019 and the country’s economic collapse have now contributed to changing Saudi calculations.

What Is Driving Saudi Calculations?

By now, Saudi Arabia has entered the third round of punitive measures against Lebanon; however, this time around the Saudi move seems driven by an attempt to get the attention of the White House. This coincided with an emboldened Hezbollah amid increasing tensions in Lebanese politics.

What drives the Saudi calculations is the difficult relationship between Washington and Riyadh since Biden took office and high-level contacts have been limited so far between the two sides. This is partly because of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing Yemen war. The United States and France have sought to integrate Saudi Arabia in their diplomatic efforts to strike a deal in Lebanon, but these attempts have clearly failed. Once the deal to form the new Lebanese government went through in September, the Saudi leadership initially remained mute. It has now made its views clear: a Saudi official view has emerged in recent years arguing that there is no longer a need to invest time and resources in Lebanon. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud echoed this sentiment in an interview on October 31st, noting that “there is a crisis in Lebanon with the dominance of Iran’s proxies over the scene, and this is what concerns us, and this is what makes it useless to deal with Lebanon.” The Saudi leadership expects more US engagement with Riyadh and a tougher American approach against Hezbollah in Lebanon after the Biden Administration eased pressure and allowed the transfer of Egyptian gas to Lebanon. Riyadh wanted to keep international pressure on Lebanon to form a cabinet of technocrats that hewed away from the dominance of Hezbollah.

A Saudi official view has emerged in recent years arguing that there is no longer a need to invest time and resources in Lebanon.

Second, Saudi Arabia is also weighing in on politics in Lebanon by endorsing Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in his confrontation with Hezbollah around the investigation of the Beirut port explosion of August 2020, while completely ignoring the cash-strapped and increasingly weak Saad Hariri. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah boasted on October 18th that his party has 100,000 fighters who can be used to address internal strife, if needed. As a clear sign of support, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Boukhari visited Geagea just before departing his post in Beirut. Geagea is being summoned for questioning by the military judiciary for his political party’s potential involvement in the violence that killed seven people during an October 14 rally by Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, that called for the removal of investigative Judge Tarek Bitar.

The Impact of Measures Taken by Riyadh

The most important impact of the Saudi measures is economic and political, rather than diplomatic and security related. Since early 2016, Riyadh had ceased its philanthropist approach of donating billions of dollars to stabilize the Lebanese currency. While Lebanon’s secrecy law prevents publishing the exact amount of Saudi cash deposits of foreign currency reserves at the Lebanese Central Bank, all indications are that they significantly decreased since 2016, which played a role in accelerating the economic collapse in Lebanon. Moreover, on November 7th the Saudi Chamber of Commerce announced that all Saudi companies will also stop dealings with Lebanese companies.

The Saudi decision to halt all imports from Lebanon will cost the Lebanese economy about $220 million per year, which will seriously impact the agricultural sector; farmers will now have to look for new export markets. Saudi Arabia had already banned the import of Lebanese fruits and vegetables in April after foiling an attempt at Jeddah port to smuggle 5.3 million Captagon amphetamine pills in pomegranate crates. According to Lebanon’s farmers’ association, Lebanese agricultural exports to the Gulf region in 2020 reached $145 million, of which 16 percent went to Saudi Arabia, or approximately $23 million. There is also the impact of banning Saudi tourists from visiting Lebanon. The Lebanese government has been hoping that the devaluation of the Lebanese currency would encourage tourists to visit the country, but COVID-19 and political instability in the last two years are limiting tourism. The most tragic Saudi escalation could be asking the nearly 350,000 Lebanese working in Saudi Arabia to leave, as Lebanon largely relies on remittances from the diaspora in the Gulf. Riyadh signaled that its measures would not include deporting Lebanese nationals. This decision, if taken, would also have a negative impact on the productivity and reputation of the Saudi labor market.

Lebanon’s Post-Saudi Diplomatic Escalation

These economic challenges require a government that rises to the occasion and plans to diversify its exports to mitigate the impact on the Lebanese economy. However, the Miqati cabinet has met only three times since its formation. The Lebanese government has not held a meeting since October 13th, when Hezbollah and the Amal Movement began boycotting the meetings of the cabinet to demand the removal of Judge Bitar. As the judicial lead into the probe of the Beirut port blast, he issued an arrest warrant on October 12th for senior Amal Movement member, parliamentarian, and former minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Now, the Saudi measures have dealt another blow to this government as the Sunni premier not only does not have Saudi endorsement, but Riyadh has officially cut all ties with the Miqati government.

Despite the row with Saudi Arabia, Miqati was embraced by world leaders during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow earlier this month. There are no indications that external and domestic pressure will bring down the Miqati government, as the United States and France see no alternative to him. After all, Lebanon remained in a stalemate, without a government, for over a year and the new cabinet is transitory and has a specific set of objectives. Interestingly, the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Lebanon, Richard Michaels, attended one of the meetings at the Lebanese foreign ministry dealing with the diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia. The United States continues to believe that engaging Lebanon is better than withdrawing and letting others, like Iran and Russia, increase their leverage. The Saudi approach practically means that all of Lebanon should pay the price of Hezbollah’s domination of the Lebanese political system. However, the Saudi expectation is unclear now, since Riyadh did not explicitly call for the resignation of the Miqati government nor does it have an unambiguous list of demands beyond ending Hezbollah’s dominance over Lebanon.

Lebanon is now stuck between removing Judge Bitar, because of his summons of people considered responsible for the Beirut port blast, and the resignation of Minister Kordahi, because of his Yemen remarks.

Lebanon is now stuck between removing Judge Bitar, because of his summons of people considered responsible for the Beirut port blast, and the resignation of Minister Kordahi, because of his Yemen remarks. The only way out of this crisis might be sacking them both, which would undermine holding accountable those behind the Beirut blast. It would also allow Saudi Arabia to have its way once again in Lebanon. Lebanese officials seem ready to support Kordahi’s resignation but expect Saudi engagement and guarantees that punitive measures will be reversed. Hezbollah has toned down the criticism of Saudi Arabia to facilitate the mediation.

The Saudi side remains unresponsive or is not ready to talk, but there are increasing indications that these latest measures could be a repeat of the “shock and awe” move of detaining Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia in November 2017. US and French pressure might ultimately make Riyadh retreat in return for some guarantees or potential benefits, and the situation might gradually return to business as usual. It seems the Saudi leadership sees a transformative moment with the economic collapse in Lebanon, one that could ultimately shift the power away from Hezbollah. However, it is not clear that Saudi Arabia has enough leverage to follow through, and it actually might have weakened its Sunni allies ahead of the Lebanese elections next spring. Saudi Arabia has now further disengaged from Lebanon and may have lost an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on Lebanese politics.