Saudi Arabia has lashed out at Lebanon, cutting off billions of dollars of aid and telling its citizens to leave the country, after Beirut sided with Iran
in a diplomatic dispute that threatens Lebanon’s struggling economy.
Saudi’s punitive measures against Lebanon began last week after the Lebanese foreign minister, Gibran Bassil, an ally of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, declined to support Saudi resolutions against Iran during two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers.
The resolution sought to condemn Iran over attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in early January.
Riyadh announced Friday it was halting $4 billion in aid grants due to what it described as stances taken by Lebanese officials which "were not in harmony with the ties between the two countries."
This week, Saudi Arabia called on its citizens not to travel to Lebanon for safety reasons and ordered those staying there to leave. Its Gulf allies Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar predictably followed suit, issuing similar warnings. The United Arab Emirates also banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon and withdrew a number of diplomats from the country.
Lebanon’s political elite is deeply divided between two powerful Saudi and Iran-backed coalitions. The spat has exacerbated divisions among Lebanon’s notoriously fractious politicians, who traded accusations over the billions of dollars lost. Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014 and parliament has failed to elect a new head of state because of lack of a quorum.
Concerns have been sparked that further steps could be taken by Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, such as gulf airlines halting flights to Beirut or the eviction of thousands of Lebanese who work in the oil-rich region, a move that would have a devastating effect on Lebanon’s crumbling economy.
There are some half a million Lebanese living in the gulf. They transfer billions of dollars to their home country in remittances, giving a boost to Lebanon’s economy, which has among the highest debt in the world — currently standing at $70 billion or 145 per cent of GDP.
Lebanese economist Louis Hobeika said the eviction of Lebanese migrant workers in the gulf would be the most damaging move Saudi could make. Some analysts say Saudi Arabia is going to deport some foreign workers anyway as projects in the kingdom are cancelled due to falling oil prices.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday before a Cabinet meeting, Economy Minister Alain Hakim urged calm. He said Lebanese should not "panic before any measures by gulf states because such fears harm our economy."
Local media reports say some worried citizens were changing their accounts in Lebanese pounds to U.S. dollars but officials say people should not worry about the pound since the Central Bank can defend it with its $40 billion foreign currency reserves.
Saudi officials say they want Lebanon to "fix the mistakes" but did not say how they can be fixed.
"Mistakes were made in two international arenas," said Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri. "What is wanted now is for the side that made the mistake to fix it."
Saudi Arabia’s influence has been dwindling in Lebanon since early 2011, when pro-Saudi prime minister Saad Hariri was ousted by Hezbollah and its allies. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to back Bashar Assad’s forces, is benefiting from recent victories against Saudi-backed insurgents in Syria.
"The Saudi message is don’t think you can translate victories in Syria and control the system in Lebanon. We have plenty of leverage through our economic muscles," said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East expert with the political risk and consulting firm, Eurasia Group..
Source: Associated Press, 25 Feb 2016