Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the Saudi pumped billions of dollars into the reconstruction of Lebanon, employed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, and supported the country economically, only to watch as Hezbollah grew into a political force to be reckoned with.
For years, the Saudis governments had teamed up with the US and some European countries (mainly France) to build a Lebanese Army as a counterweight to Hezbollah, but without satisfactory results for Riyadh. To be sure, since the outbreak of the so-called "Arab Spring" in 2011, the Saudi strategy in Lebanon has been tested, and its weakness and limitation has become more evident.
For example, Hezbollah and its allies quit the cabinet in 2011, toppling Lebanon’s unity government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and forcing him to step down and go into self-imposed exile until August 2014. The growing intervention of Hezbollah in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was another proof of the limitation of Riyadh’s strategy in Lebanon.
These developments led the Saudis to evaluate their policy towards Lebanon. But the focus of the Saudi leadership on its domestic issues and addressing the regional repercussions of the Arab Spring may have been the reason why there was no significant focus on Lebanon.
However, when Salman became the King of Saudi Arabia in 2015, the power of young prince Mohammed bin Salman started to rise dramatically. The new Saudi leadership embarked on assertive foreign policy and begun to look at all regional security issues through the prism of its fears about growing Iranian influence. Indeed, the Saudis see Tehran’s activities as dangerously provocative, not only in Lebanon, but also in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East and beyond. Thus, Riyadh sees Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy in every respect and regards the group as part of Tehran’s strategic reach. The main motive of the Saudi Arabian pushback against Hezbollah now appears to be its conviction that the group, which Riyadh classifies as a terrorist organization, is playing an increasingly active role in providing logistical support, weapons, and missile expertise to Ansar Allah or Houthis in Yemen, who use it to bomb Saudi cities.
In this context, the Saudis concluded that they are no longer willing to prop up Lebanon while Hezbollah exploits the situation to strengthen Iranian influence in Lebanon and the wider region. Consequently, Saudi-Lebanese relations have worsened in the last two years. In 2016, the Saudi government withdrew its promised US$ 4bn arms-and security-related funding package, whilst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
On the other side, in October 2016, al-Hariri agreed to endorse Michel Aoun to become President as part of a deal with Hezbollah and its allies for al-Hariri to become Prime Minister. Although this deal reflected the sectarian nature of the Lebanese political system, Riyadh sees it as a concession to Hezbollah that ultimately supports Iran’s interests.
After al-Hariri became Lebanon’s Prime Minister in December 2016, the Saudis tried to push for confrontation with Hezbollah, which led eventually to the shock resignation of al-Hariri in November 2017, widely believed to have been orchestrated by Riyadh. However, the gambit, which lasted only two weeks, backfired and ended up isolating Riyadh instead of Hezbollah.
Against this backdrop, there is ample recent evidence to suggest a warmer approach towards Lebanon from the Saudi leadership, starting with the replacement of its ambassador in Lebanon in early March 2018 in addition to al-Hariri’s visit to Riyadh in the same monthfor the first time since his abrupt resignation in November 2017. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia renewed its willingness to commit financial support to Lebanon and pledged a US$ 1bn credit line during the Paris Donor Conference (CEDRE) in early April 2018.
While the situation now seems to have calmed down, Saudi Arabia remains concerned about Hezbollah. Thus, it will continue to apply political pressure to reduce the group’s influence and activities in Lebanon and beyond.
However, experience shows that Riyadh’s options in Lebanon are still limited and pushing back on Hezbollah is no easy task. The economy remains Riyadh’s sharpest weapon for any tougher policy against Beirut. However, piling pressure on the Lebanese economy, already under severe strain, is a risky business which could lead to the collapse of Lebanon’s economy and bring even more problems to Riyadh.
Worryingly for the Saudis, Hezbollah and its Sunni and Christian allies could make gains in the parliamentary election to be held on May 6. The election, the first since 2009, is unlikely to alter the Lebanese political landscape significantly. However, if Hezbollah wins more parliamentary seats, this will certainly enhance the party’s image and increase its political legitimacy inside and outside Lebanon.
In sum, Saudi Arabia will continue to seek broader international support, especially from Trump’s administration, to curtail what it sees as growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. However, the bottom line is that there is, of course, no easy option for Riyadh and no guarantee that Saudi tougher approach will succeed.