The Iran-Saudi Rivalry Heats Up Again in Lebanon
Late last month, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain expelled the Lebanese ambassadors in their countries and the Saudi kingdom banned imports from Lebanon. While coping with triple digit inflation, fuel shortages, a paralyzed banking system, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other problems, the Lebanese people could suffer even more due to their government’s row with four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states which have histories of being major financial donors to Beirut.
The Al Jazeera TV interview that Lebanon’s Information Minister George Kardahi gave back in August was the spark that lit the flame. His descriptions of the Saudi-led war in Yemen as “futile” and the Houthi rebels as a “resistance” movement fueled rage in some Arab Gulf states. Many GCC officials viewed Kardahi’s comments, which he made before becoming Information Minister, as a symptom of Lebanon coming under too much Iranian influence.
None of this is new. For many years there has been a widespread view in the Arabian Peninsula that considering all the Gulf money put into Lebanon since its civil war ended in 1990, it is outrageous how much influence the Iranians have in the country. Some Gulf monarchies find it unacceptable that Lebanese officials “insult” Saudi Arabia and express sympathy for the Houthi rebels. A common perspective in some GCC states is that Lebanon is a lost cause, one that has gone too far into Iran’s orbit.
“The Saudi reaction, and their insistence that the rest of the GCC—other than Qatar and Oman, who ostensibly and characteristically resisted Saudi pressure—follow suit in castigating Lebanon, demonstrates that the Minister’s comment touched a nerve,” Dr. Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, told Newslooks. “The Houthis are advancing on Maarib, while the Saudis have allegedly withdrawn forces from al-Mahra as well as Ataq airport in Shabwa. While the Saudis had hoped to find a way to withdraw from Yemen without losing face, this increasingly appears unlikely. But the Saudis are determined to try to control the narrative as much as possible.”
That said, this is not all about Kardahi’s comments. That’s far from being the case. The smuggling of drugs from Lebanon into Saudi Arabia, crimes committed against Saudi nationals in Lebanon, and other factors have contributed to this view in Riyadh that it is “not productive” to put energy into dealing with the current government in Beirut.
At this point, the Saudis, with support from the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, seek to apply pressure on Lebanon at a time in which the country is extremely weak. What is clear is that Saudi Arabia has taken sides in Lebanon’s affairs and wants to counter the power of Hezbollah which represents Iranian influence in the Arab country. “It’s important that the government in Lebanon…forges a path forward that frees Lebanon from the current political construct, which reinforces the dominance of Hezbollah,” was how Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud put it.
But at no point over the years has Riyadh succeeded in terms of effectively confronting Hezbollah and weakening its tight grip over the political scene in Beirut. It can be said that Lebanon—in addition to Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—is one part of the Arab world where Iran has the upper-hand over its Saudi rival.
So Saudi Arabia is using economic influence, which is one area where Riyadh has some leverage. The kingdom is now playing its economic cards to try and push Lebanon away from Iran. It seems safe to bet that officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will keep applying pressure on Beirut, at least until after the March 2022 elections which some GCC states hope will lead to a new Lebanese government that is far less affiliated with Hezbollah.
Some analysts see this Saudi-led action against Beirut as being connected to the Iran-Saudi talks which began seven months ago in Baghdad. Perhaps Riyadh believes that targeting Lebanon at this point will prompt the Iranians to concede on some front to the Saudis, perhaps moving the talks in a direction that is more suitable to the kingdom’s interests.
But it is fair to ask, from a Saudi perspective, if this action against Lebanon risks pushing the Mediterranean country closer to Iran. “Since the Saudis regard Lebanon as an Iranian card, they feel it makes sense to behave toward the country in that way,” tweeted Michael Young, editor of Diwan, a blog of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “The problem is that by isolating Lebanon, they will only ensure that Iran and its local proxies tighten their control over Lebanon.”
The Qatari Question
An interesting variable in this equation is Qatar, which condemned the Lebanese Information Minister’s description of the Yemen War but also refused to take any diplomatic action against Beirut in solidarity with Riyadh. Doha is promising Beirut that it will support the Lebanese economy throughout this Arab-Arab dispute. Yet in practice, there could be perceptions of Qatar supporting a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon which may result in problems for Doha as it works to build on rapprochements with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi ten months after the historic al-Ula summit of January 2021.
A fair assumption is that Qatari diplomats will be working to promote dialogue between officialdom in Beirut and the GCC states which have acted against Lebanon. Nonetheless, with the Saudis and Emiratis maintaining very rigid positions on the situation in Beirut, what Doha can achieve as a promotor of dialogue remains to be seen. More By The Author