Don't Let the Saudis Destabilize Lebanon

By Bilal Y. Saab | Senior Fellow and Director of Defense and Security Program - The Middle East Institute | Nov 20, 2017
Don't Let the Saudis Destabilize Lebanon

Read the full article on Foreign Affairs.

Across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is attempting to push back against Iran. Now, after its defeat in Syria, struggles in Yemen, and mixed record in Iraq, Riyadh is set to make Lebanon the next front in its conflict with Tehran.  

Saudi Arabia’s target in Lebanon is Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite party with an old and deep alliance with Iran. Thanks to Tehran’s generous and consistent financial and military assistance, Hezbollah has transformed into a formidable regional power—one that in recent years has cemented its dominance over Lebanon’s national security decisionmaking, bolstered its deterrence against Israel, helped save the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and supported fellow Shiite militias in Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. 

The Saudis see Hezbollah’s control of politics in Beirut as untenable. That is why, in a clear departure from past policy, they have decided to confront Hezbollah more actively by holding the Lebanese government responsible for the group’s regional adventurism—including in the Saudis’ own backyard in Yemen, where Hezbollah allegedly supports the Houthi rebels.

The first sign of punitive Saudi measures against Lebanon was the forced resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on November 4, while Hariri was in Riyadh. The Saudis didn’t believe that Hariri, who had sought consensus with Hezbollah last year to ensure his own political survival, was willing or able to execute their new hardline policy on Hezbollah. So they compelled him to quit. But Saudi retribution might not stop here. Riyadh could also ramp up pressure on Hezbollah by pulling all Saudi deposits from Lebanese banks and expelling Lebanese nationals from Saudi territory, both of which would be detrimental to the country’s financial stability. Riyadh may assume that an internal crisis in Lebanon will distract Hezbollah, preventing it from expanding and deepening its involvement in other battlefields across the region.