Saudi and Kuwait ambassadors’ return to Beirut in early April marked an initial rapprochement in Gulf-Lebanese ties after a five-month long diplomatic crisis. Last October, Saudi Arabia – followed by Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – had withdrawn its ambassador after the then Information Minister, George Kordahi, criticised Riyadh-led military interventions in Yemen. Simultaneously, Riyadh blocked all Lebanese imports in addition to fruits and vegetables imports, which had already been banned the previous April in an attempt to stop trafficking of Captagon pills’ after the so-called “drug of the jihad” was found in agricultural products imported from Lebanon. The rupture of diplomatic relations was the culmination of the Saudis’ longstanding irritation vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s dominant role in the country and the Lebanese government’s inability to contain the Iran-backed Shia movement. It also reflected Saudi concern about Hezbollah’s growing support for the Houthis in Yemen as well as closer links between regional Shia movements sponsored by Tehran. Over the last years, Middle Eastern power competition — notably the Saudi Iranian rivalry — and geopolitical tensions have increasingly reverberated across Lebanon’s fragmented domestic landscape.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has played a prominent role in Lebanon’s political and economic affairs. However, Riyadh’s relations with Beirut grew more problematic over time, with two episodes in particular contributing to said shift. First, the appointment of Michel Aoun, whose party has close link with Hezbollah, as President of the Republic. Secondly, the Shia movement’s victory in the 2018 election, which allowed it to broaden its role both in Parliament and domestic politics. Disagreements with the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose family was backed by Riyadh, further contributed to weakening bilateral ties. Ultimately, Hariri’s attempts to reach a modus operandi with Hezbollah were not appreciated by the kingdom.
It is not by accident that Riyadh’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Beirut coincides with Lebanon’s approaching general election. While disenchantment seems to prevail in the country over a vote that is hardly considered a major game-changer, Saudi Arabia is concerned that Hezbollah could expand its influence and power-taking advantage of the Sunni faction’s fragmentation. In January, the Future Movement party — the country’s main Sunni party — lost is leader, Saad Hariri, who withdrew from the political arena. Other prominent figures in the Sunni camp, including the current Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have also declared they will not take part in the electoral race. Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia’s renewed relations with Lebanon come as an attempt to support the Sunni community. Re-engaging with Lebanese political affairs from within the country by trying to act as a catalyst of all Sunni forces seems to be the kingdom’s renewed strategy to both challenge Hezbollah’s position in the sectarian system and bring Beirut closer to the Arab fold. To this aim, Saudi ambassador Walid Bukhari proactively engaged in meeting Lebanese political and religious figures in the weeks preceding the vote. Similarly, the need for a renewed Arab sponsorship was also expressed by Prime Minister Mikati during his visit in Qatar at the end of March.
What is at stake for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies in Lebanon? First, against the backdrop of resumed JCPOA negotiations with Iran, there is greater awareness among Gulf capitals of the need to reengage with Lebanon to contain Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and reorient the country’s regional posture. This goes hand in hand with Arab leaders’ re-engagement with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Secondly, Gulf states are concerned about their own security following Hezbollah’s transnational activities, especially its interference in Yemen, from where several attacks have been carried out against Saudi and UAE territories over the past few years. Concerns also relate to the flourishing drug trafficking from Syria — through Lebanon — to the Gulf.
The rift has also contributed to worsening Lebanon’s dramatic economic situation, which has greatly relied on foreign donors, including Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia’s ban on Lebanese imports has further strained the country’s economy, depriving it of its third largest export market as well as of a transit point for Lebanese trade to other markets in the Gulf. In 2020, Lebanon’s exports to Saudi Arabia accounted for nearly $230 million, amounting to 5.6% of its global exports and 14% of total exported agricultural products.
Whether — and how — restored diplomatic ties will lead to economic and financial re-engagement remains unclear. Both the Gulf monarchies and other international donors, such as France and the US, have conditioned any financial aid to Lebanon upon an agreement with the IMF as well as the implementation of key economic reforms. Two weeks after a first staff-level agreement to provide Lebanon with $3 billion in aid was reached in April, Saudi Arabia and France pledged 30 million euros to launch a humanitarian initiative for Lebanon’s most vulnerable population. It includes food security, healthcare, education, energy, water, and internal security forces programmes. While the agreement still requires the IMF management and executive board’s approval, it remains to be seen whether the Saudi-French initiative will be the first step for a future comprehensive financial package. Overall, the kind of role Riyadh, along with the other Gulf states, is ready to play in Lebanon will largely depend on the kind of parliament that will emerge after the May 15th election.