Saudi Brinkmanship in Lebanon

In the context of its continuing rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s response to limited success in Yemen and setbacks in Syria has been to try and reassert its influence, contain its enemies, and close ranks—reevaluating some of its alliances in the process. Recent Saudi moves to apply financial and diplomatic pressure on Lebanon suggest the country may be the first casualty of Riyadh’s new policy. But squeezing the Lebanese state may merely weaken it and Saudi Arabia’s own allies in Beirut while failing to achieve the kingdom’s strategic objectives. 

In the past, although Lebanon often served as an arena in which the Saudis competed with Iran and Syria, Riyadh nevertheless sought to find an uneasy but pragmatic working relationship with Damascus and its local allies in Beirut. For example, when Syrian troops were stationed in Lebanon following the civil war, Riyadh heavily supported post-war reconstruction and greatly invested in the Lebanese economy. While Riyadh’s investment was channeled through its main local political ally—the Hariri economic and political dynasty—it did so while trying not to step directly on Syria’s toes. Even following the shocking assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Saudi resolute stance against Syria, Iran, and their domestic allies was relatively short-lived. By 2008 Riyadh had abandoned its strategy of confrontation and instead resorted to a policy of rapprochement with Damascus, a de facto acceptance that it was impossible to end Syria’s influence on Lebanese domestic politics. 

Yet the impact of both the civil war in Syria and the rising Saudi–Iranian rivalry on Lebanon has been direct—pre-existing cleavages between the pro- and anti-Assad camp have intensified. This has led to a long and crippling paralysis of Lebanese domestic politics that has left the presidential residence, Baabda Palace, vacant since May 2014. Frustrated by recent blows to its influence in Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has taken a series of assertive actions in the past few months seemingly aimed at breaking the impasse, containing Hezbollah, and attempting to force a change in Lebanon’s ambivalent regional alignment. 

The tightening of the screws officially began as a response to Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s reluctance to endorse an Arab League condemnation of the January 2016 mob attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, an episode triggered by the Saudi execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. While Bassil—who is also the new leader of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement party—expressed solidarity with Riyadh, he fell short of endorsing its broader criticism of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s regional roles, citing Lebanon’s policy of “official neutrality.”

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