Why Lebanon Could Be the Next Middle East Hot Spot

Saudi Arabia has made a gamble in its regional proxy war with longtime foe Iran by retreating from Lebanon, an arena where the two have long competed for influence. It may be a risky bet.

The kingdom has long vied with Iran for dominance in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but one place their hostilities had not spilled onto a battlefield was Lebanon. That country, despite hosting millions of Syrian refugees, has been relatively stable compared to neighboring nations that are engulfed in chaos. But Saudi Arabia has decided it will no longer tolerate the growing influence of the terror group Hezbollah inside Lebanon and has chosen to withdraw its patronage.

The seemingly sudden action is the latest division between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, traditional allies whose relationship has been strained by a series of regional crises and concern among the Saudis that the U.S. is drawing closer to Tehran. With its intensified assertiveness toward Iran, some fear Riyadh is in danger of destabilizing fragile Lebanon in a region that cannot afford another outright armed conflict.


The simmering rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran was most recently reignited after Saudi Arabia’s January execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, which enraged Iranians and prompted an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Tehran and lashed out at Lebanon when it became the only Arab League country that did not condemn the embassy attack.


Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah sympathizer, said his country would not endorse the official statements from the Arab League regarding the embassy attack because they also condemned Hezbollah. The perceived snub led the Saudis to take a series of markedly harsher steps against a Lebanese government with which it has grown increasingly frustrated.


Matt McInnis, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the Saudis are “trying to punish Lebanon” to prevent what they see as Beirut’s “trending toward Iranian domination.”


“It makes me a little nervous of how far this could potentially go,” he says. “Lebanon has surprisingly held together as Syria has fallen apart and we could be heading to situation where Lebanon also begins to fall apart, which, in the context of what’s happening in Syria, would be even more disastrous.”

In February, Riyadh suspended $4 billion in aid – $3 billion of it military aid – to Lebanon. In a statement explaining its decision, Saudi Arabia said it “encounters positions against it in Arab, regional and international forums” as a result of Hezbollah’s “seizure” of the Lebanese government. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam asked the kingdom to reconsider, saying his country was “keen on keeping the relations brotherly and friendly.”


In addition, Saudi Arabia has expelled Lebanese workers that the government alleges are members of Hezbollah. Beirut relies on remittances from hundreds of thousands of its workers who send money back home to Lebanon, making the move a potentially crippling economic blow.


The U.S. has called the Saudi moves “reckless” and “a significant overreaction” amid wider fears that a collapsing economy could fuel domestic opposition in a country where the government is already struggling to provide basic services in some areas.


Last fall, demonstrations in Beirut turned violent in response to the city’s eight-month long trash crisis which has caused garbage bags to pile up across the city. The lack of landfill capacity infuriated residents, whose protests signaled increasing Lebanese discontent with the government’s functionality.


Saudi Arabia has called on Lebanon to condemn Iran and Hezbollah, both very unlikely prospects. The cutoff of funds by the Saudis leaves a dangerous void that Iran could fill, consolidating its support inside Lebanon and tipping the balance of power in its favor. McInnis says even if this doesn’t happen, the reduction of military support could be dangerous for a country already in a precarious security situation with a civil war next door in Syria, in which Hezbollah supports Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Saudis support the opposition.

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