One of the subplots of Middle Eastern politics today is the way that Saudi Arabia has stubbornly refused to have anything to do with Lebanon. For years, the kingdom has cut the country off, considering it to be an Iranian outpost. The Saudis have especially avoided engaging with the country’s politics, despite the United States’ and France’s repeated insistence that they reconsider their position.
What is intriguing is not the reason for the Saudis’ behavior. Many things can help to explain the kingdom’s antagonism toward Lebanon these days. This includes Hezbollah’s domination of the country, President Michel Aoun’s and his son in law Gebran Bassil’s support over the years for Hezbollah’s political agenda, and the sheer imbecility of some officials in Beirut. There is also the fact that the Saudis feel they have poured billions of dollars into Lebanon over the decades, only to see that this has had little positive impact on the attitudes of many Lebanese toward the kingdom.
Rather, the question is why are the Saudis ignoring the basic rules of power politics by casually surrendering all their cards in Lebanon? It makes more sense to retain alliances there and create the means to push back against Hezbollah’s and Iran’s decisions when necessary. Hezbollah and the Shia represent a minority nationally, and Sunnis are roughly equal to them demographically, if not more numerous. Iran’s ability throughout the region to transform their minority proxies into potent political actors—the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq—is a testament to the rewards of exploiting the advantages you have to the fullest. Why won’t the Saudis play a similar game in Lebanon?
There are many explanations for this, but none is particularly convincing. Some argue that Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, doesn’t have the experience of a previous generation of Saudi leaders, who knew the region inside out. Experience is important, but Prince Mohammed is definitely sensitive to the ways of power, and the kingdom’s willingness to enter into a dialogue with Iran shows it. If the Iranians have been able to bring the Saudis to the table because the United States is no longer willing to defend the kingdom, then the Saudis are surely capable of determining what might bring Iran to the table on Saudi terms.
Another explanation is that the Saudis have lost all faith in their leading Lebanese ally, former prime minister Saad al-Hariri. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt there, and Hariri has been a major disappointment, both politically and in his business affairs. But personalizing one’s relationship with an entire country is never a good idea, and the Saudis have plenty of ways of dealing with the Sunnis and giving them direction without passing through Hariri. And let’s assume they have to work with the former prime minister, so what? They can interact with him if needed, and look elsewhere when required. Why deny themselves that latitude?
Hariri has sensibly avoided a major clash with Hezbollah, fearing the repercussions for Sunni-Shia relations. Perhaps his error in the past has been a failure to mobilize his communal backing to bolster his political strategy—even if the main problem today is that Hariri has not betrayed any discernible strategy at all. His efforts in recent years have been focused solely on securing his political survival, reversing the ruinous consequences of the downfall of his Saudi Oger company, and retaining regional and international backing. Furthermore, on all these fronts he has come up short.
Hariri may not be to the Saudis’ taste, nor to that of all Lebanese Sunnis, but surely they must realize that when he is marginalized politically, or discredited, the impact is felt by the community at large. The Saudis’ arrest of Hariri in November 2017 was not only humiliating, it was politically incomprehensible. Once Hariri was shown to be dispensable, his domestic political rivals—Aoun and Bassil, but also Hezbollah—considered him a dead man walking. They could see that he had lost his regional sponsor and therefore was infinitely vulnerable, giving them more leverage over him. The Sunnis lost much in the process, but so too did Saudi Arabia.
That is not to say that the Saudis’ quarantine of Lebanon has left them with nothing. The fact that Riyadh’s refusal to deal with Lebanon has prompted other Gulf states to do the same has been very damaging for the Lebanese economy, not least its agricultural sector. But what is the ultimate purpose of this, other than to increase the misery of the population? If the Saudis want to reinforce those forces in Lebanon that reject Hezbollah’s political impositions, then targeting everyone indiscriminately is hardly the most promising way of doing so. All it does is undermine Lebanese society across the board, creating opportunities for Hezbollah to implement its preferences.
The shortcomings of outside pressure have persuaded Egypt and Jordan to adopt a different attitude toward the countries that Iran dominates. Neither one nor the other takes Tehran’s political aims lightly, but they appear to have come to the conclusion that the only way to challenge Iran is to build up their alliances in those countries—notably Syria and Lebanon—in order to show that they too can demand a say in shaping developments on the ground. This may well be a useful model for the Saudis to consider.
The maximalist Saudi position with regard to Lebanon is not only a case of political opportunity cost, it is creating a situation that is only bolstering Hezbollah’s and Iran’s hegemony. What is most disturbing is that such an approach hews closely to the line of conservative politicians and think tanks in Washington, who cannot see that their harsh recommendations for Lebanon will lead to the very outcomes they purportedly want to avoid. Politics is about acquiring leverage, not killing the baby. Lebanon’s ties to Saudi Arabia are essential, but Riyadh should recognize that the best way of making this clear is to compel Iran and Hezbollah to give the kingdom a seat at the table.