Saudi Policy in Lebanon in Review
Saudi Arabia is losing ground in Lebanon to its rival Iran! A statement widely spread through the media platforms and discussed in Lebanese political circles. Starting from the day that KSA took the decision to freeze the 3b$ aid to the Lebanese army, several analysts observed this act as the Kingdom’s withdrawal from the confrontation with Iran in Beirut. The financial crisis that is facing the Lebanese prime minister and the Saudi ally Saad Hariri, adding to it the election of General Michel Aoun, an ally for March 8 bloc since 2006, raised speculation about the decline of the Saudi role and a triumph for the Iranian axis in Lebanon. These assumptions although common, are not really substantiated and are worth a serious review starting with the historical background of the Saudi Lebanese relations to the latest events of the Lebanese presidential elections.
After its rise as a regional power with King Faisal, the Saudi leadership viewed Lebanon in a nostalgic way, even though the small Arab state was one of the proxies during the cold war between the Arab Nationalists, Nasserites, and the conservative monarchs that included KSA. Many of the Saudi emirs continued their education in Lebanese schools and universities enjoying their summer vacations in Mount Lebanon villages. In 1975, after the civil war erupted in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia had a significant role as a mediator between the different political parties, militias and foreign troops (basically Syrian regime and PLO). After one year, the Saudi Arabian troops entered the Lebanese soil in addition to other Arab forces under the umbrella of ”Arab deterrence forces” to end the two violent years of war between the Christian militias and PLO. The Saudi forces were regarded as the substitute army to the Syrian forces in the Ashrafieh region after the 100 days of war in the eastern region of Beirut between the Syrian army and the Lebanese Forces. KSA diplomats increased their engagement as peace mediators during the Zahle war and following the Israeli invasion in summer 1982. Foreign minister Prince Saud El Faissal and Saudi ambassador in USA Prince Bandar Bin Sultan played both an essential role in trying to end the seven year war (1975-1982) by using all the diplomatic means. At the same time, the beginning of the 1980’s marked the presence of the Lebanese-Saudi businessman Rafic Hariri as the official representative in the dialogues between the Saudis and the Lebanese. His efforts were well documented in many books especially in “The Prince” book that narrated his visits to Cyprus and Damascus with Bandar Bin Sultan to meet with Lebanese politicians and militia leaders. Hariri’s political dynamic in Lebanon appeared in all peace efforts from Lausanne to Geneva, moving to the tripartite agreement in Damascus and finally were successful in the meetings that were held in his second country Saudi Arabia in the city of Taef. Furthermore, Robert Hatem aka Cobra known as the closest bodyguard to the former Lebanese Forces president Elie Hobeika mentioned in his book “From Israel to Damascus” the financial role of Hariri in the tripartite agreement to pressure the different parties to accept the peace treaty. Hariri wasn’t only a political ally for the Saudi policy makers in Lebanon. The rising Sunni politician was also considered as a brother for the Saudi Kings and emirs having a special relation with King Fahd. Adding to his familial closeness to the Saudi emirs, Hariri’s large investments in the construction sector in KSA with the protection and support by the Saudi family gave him a huge financial leverage in Lebanon. The Saudi Oger company owned by Hariri became one of the Saudi Arabia’s economic structure. After the Taef agreement, the Saudi-Syrian understanding allowed Hariri to head most of the Lebanese governments where he became one of the most influential leaders in Lebanon and the region before he was assassinated on February 14, 2005.
The Deteriorating Role of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon
KSA received the biggest blow to its presence and influence in Lebanon with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Upon the death of Rafic Hariri, KSA provided his son and political heir Saad with the same support. However, their continuous political investment in Saad Hariri, didn’t give beneficial results and success for the Saudi policy. Although the new Sunni leader was supported by the Kingdom to face the Iranian challenge in Lebanon, the circumstances after 2005 were much more challenging and Hezbollah was not shy to express (even militarily) its intentions to control Lebanon’s political scene notably after the alliance with the largest Christian party Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the 2006 war in which it claimed victory. The imbalance of power was clearly visible in Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in May 7, 2008, and in the fact that in spite of winning two parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2009 with the March 14 alliance, Hariri was only able to head one cabinet in 10 years and one that he was not able to keep from resigning and being replaced by a pro-Hezbollah cabinet. The rapprochement between the Saudi King and President Bachar El Assad in 2009 wasn’t fruitful in a way to protect Saad Harri’s political leadership in Lebanon on the contrary his own rapprochement and visit to Damascus cost him a lot in popular support.
The new Saudi Leadership and its new approach
Upon the rise of the “Arab Spring” popular movement around the Arab World, KSA was strongly involved in the events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria with each of the countries presenting special challenges. Furthermore, the events in several Arab countries were driven by a strong Sunni Shiite divide and were used by the Islamic Revolution in Iran to spread its influence to these countries. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader publicly stated that Iran controlled four Arab capitals meaning by that Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa.
The death of King Abdallah in January 2015 and the rise of the new generation in the Saudi leadership brought drastic changes to the Saudi foreign policy including Lebanon. The new Saudi leadership’s focus in Lebanon was based on confronting Iranian willingness to control Lebanon. The financial cuts of the Saudi budget adding to it the rising Iranian threat in its neighboring countries (Yemen and Bahrain) decreased the Saudi interest in Lebanese politics. It seemed that the Saudi leadership was not willing to invest significant effort and financial resources while its main allies are losing more and more ground in Lebanon while sitting on the same cabinet table with Hezbollah providing it with political and legal coverage for its actions in Syria. KSA withheld the 4bn$ promised for the Lebanese security institutions, classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon.
Parallel to the political leadership in Lebanon, Saad Hariri’s businesses in Saudi Arabia and his main company Saudi Oger were also facing significant challenges leading him to a serious lack of liquidity. Allegations of corruption in his company were publicly revealed to the Saudi public opinion embarrassing the Saudi government and putting it in uneasy position toward thousands of foreign workers waiting for their salaries. The Saudi engagement in Yemen and the decrease in oil prices accelerated Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) willingness to obtain Saudi Oger and other major contracting companies like the Bin Laden group.
Furthermore, it is obvious that the “emotional” feelings and attachment that the Saudi emirs older generation had towards Rafic isn’t a relevant factor nowadays in decisions taken by the youngest emirs represented by MBS and Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef (MBN). Their rational view of Lebanon as a state that is mostly dominated by the Iranian allies was exacerbated with the Lebanese officials’ positions during the peak of confrontation with Iran in the international relations arenas.
Effect on Sunni Lebanese Leadership
Saad Hariri’s absence from Lebanon for several years adding to the future movement negotiations with Hezbollah and its presence in the same government with Hezbollah created anger and frustration among the Sunnis in general and in North Lebanon more specifically. Hariri’s political tactics in the past years were in doubt. The municipal elections of May 2016 were a clear indicator of the rise of electoral dismay with a very significant loss in Tripoli municipality. It is hard to neglect that General Ashraf Rifi, a previous ally and friend to Saad Hariri, had a serious influence among the unsatisfied poor Sunnis in North Lebanon and provided voters with a more hardliner discourse that they were eager to hear. Saudi Arabia’s didn’t react negatively to Rifi’s success, on the contrary the Kingdom’s Ambassador showed him respect and affection in several occasions. Several intelligence reports claimed that KSA’s and Qatar’s intelligence supported Rifi to contain the rising power of Salafist movements especially in Northern Lebanon. But even if such a regional support was indeed delivered to Rifi, Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Hariri isn’t waning as many wished or analyzed.
One clear component in Saudi Arabia’s new strategy in Lebanon is the push for a rapprochement between the Sunni leaders in Lebanon. The first indicator came when Abdul Rahim Murad, a close ally to Damascus, surprisingly visited Saudi Arabia which was followed by a visit to Saad Hariri and an alliance between the two Sunni leaders in West Bekaa villages’ municipal elections. Sources point that the close Emirati and Egyptian relations with Abdul Rahim Murad helped in easing his tensions with KSA and Hariri, and diminishing his relations with Hezbollah, but keeping his close relations with the Syrian regime. A similar push was translated in a reconciliation between Hariri and Mikati (who headed the pro-Hezbollah cabinet in 2011) and an alliance of the two leaders also in the municipal. It is clear that Saudi Arabia isn’t giving up on Lebanon and keeping its relations open with all Sunni leaderships and its alternatives available.
Presidential Elections: A defeat for KSA in Lebanon?
When speaking about the presidential elections and the deadlock that Lebanon was facing, it is safe to say that any change of the status-quo, bringing Saad Hariri back as the head of the cabinet is considered a relative gain for the Saudi influence in Lebanon. However, Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of a president from March 8 pro-Hezbollah camp was not automatic. Hariri’s initial choice was to support Suleiman Frangiye a close ally and personal friend of Bashar Assad. This choice was opposed by Saudi Arabia’s main Christian ally the Lebanese Forces that played a major role in convincing the kingdom’s leadership not to put a veto but on the contrary to prefer Aoun over Fangiye as a choice for the Lebanese presidency. Indeed, this explains the Saudi choice of accepting or even encouraging Hariri’s new move in supporting Aoun. This position was translated by sending a special envoy to accompany the presidential elections and to meet General Aoun before it giving him an honoring shield.
The results of the US elections which may settle a new strategy for the superpower leadership in the Middle East is an important factor for the future move for KSA in the Middle East and Lebanon. The Iranian nuclear deal and the Syrian war are considered two portfolios closely connected to the political developments in Lebanon. Until now, it seems that most of the key regional and international players are satisfied with the minimum stability of Lebanon in the middle of the regional chaos an in spite of terrorist organizations and militias interfering in its internal affairs.
Finally, with Hariri nominated to be the next Prime Minister and with the resolution of Saudi Oger financial issue the Saudi leadership seems to separate the political relations from the internal Saudi economic plans. Saad Hariri can be sure to enjoy Saudi political support in his upcoming challenges starting with cabinet formation to the parliamentary elections next year and the dealing with the new status that the Lebanese presidential elections have created. However, Hariri will be taking responsibility and baring the consequences of his own choices at a time when the region and KSA are standing at a crossroad and facing some of the most difficult challenges in their modern history.
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