March 7, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1232

Lebanon's Failure To Support Saudi Arabia In Struggle With Iran Sparks Crisis Between Lebanon And Saudi-Led Gulf

March 7, 2016 | By E. B. Picali and E. Ezrahi*
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1232


In recent weeks, a deep crisis has developed in Lebanese-Saudi relations, to the extent that Saudi Arabia took punitive measures against Lebanon: halting a $4 billion aid package to the Lebanese security forces;[1] issuing a travel warning for this country, and taking a decision to expel Lebanese nationals from Saudi Arabia. In addition, on March 2, 2016 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the council of Arab interior ministers both issued resolutions, initiated by Saudi Arabia, to designate Hizbullah a terrorist organization.[2]

The crisis was triggered when Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is close to Hizbullah, declined in two major Arab forums to endorse resolutions supporting Saudi Arabia and condemning Iran, in particular condemning the January 2, 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.[3]

This Lebanese position evoked fury in Saudi Arabia, prompting the kingdom to announce a "reassessment" of its relations with Lebanon and to cancel the aid package intended for Lebanon. The other Gulf countries, with the exception of Oman, immediately joined the Saudi position and took measures of their own against Lebanon. The Saudi anger at Lebanon was also expressed in the Saudi and Gulf press, which published dozens of articles that blamed Hizbullah for the Lebanese position and accused this organization of "hijacking" Lebanon and taking over its decision-making, and transforming it into a province of Iran.

The Saudi and Gulf measures against Lebanon evoked responses from the two rival political camps in the country: on the one hand Hizbullah and its political allies, who supported the position of Foreign Minister Bassil, and on the other hand the pro-Saudi March 14 Forces, who attacked Hizbullah and sided with Saudi Arabia. The tension between the camps was also reflected in the pro-Hizbullah press. Articles warned the March 14 Forces against taking measures that could lead to an explosion similar to what happened in Lebanon on March 7, 2008, when Hizbullah took over Beirut and other parts of the country by force of arms.[4]

These recent developments in Saudi-Lebanese relations are yet another round in the years-long struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in Lebanon. The balance of power in this struggle has long been tipping in favor of Iran, mainly thanks to the considerable political and military clout wielded in Lebanon by its ally, Hizbullah, and also thanks to Iran's wide influence zone, which stretches through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, due to Iran's involvement in the Syrian crisis and the presence of its Revolutionary Guards forces in the area. For Saudi Arabia, Lebanon's failure to support the pro-Saudi resolutions - reflecting a further increase in Lebanon's inclination towards Iran - was a breaking point. This development prompted Saudi Arabia to withdraw its support from Lebanon, despite the harm this could cause to its allies there, the March 14 Forces.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia's hostility towards Hizbullah increased, due to the latter's security and military involvement in Bahrain and Kuwait, and especially its military involvement in Syria, which are part of the Saudi-Iranian struggle in the region. Recently, Saudi Arabia even accused Hizbullah of arming and training the Houthi rebels in Yemen and of helping them to stage terror attacks against Saudi Arabia. According to Ahmad Al-'Asiri, an advisor to the Saudi defense minister and the spokesman of the Arab coalition for the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has proof that Hizbullah sent fighters to Yemen to train and assist the Houthis in their war with the Arab coalition.[5] Hizbullah's involvement in Yemen is seen by Saudi Arabia as a direct threat to its national security. By halting its aid to Lebanon, the kingdom may be trying to hurt Hizbullah at home by pressuring the Lebanese government and public to act against this organization. 

Moreover, the current Saudi criticism is not confined to Hizbullah and its allies in Lebanon, including Foreign Minister Bassil, but also extends to Saudi Arabia's allies in this country, the March 14 Forces. Articles in the Saudi press accused the March 14 Forces, headed by the Al-Mustaqbal faction chairman Sa'd Al-Hariri and Prime Minister Tammam Salam, of capitulating to Hizbullah and failing to defend Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's Arab identity, out of fear. Saudi Arabia, it seems, holds its allies in Lebanon and in the Lebanese government responsible for the situation and demands that they change it. The revoking of the aid package - which includes $1 billion earmarked for the Lebanese internal security service, which is associated with Al-Mustaqbal leader Sa'd Al-Hariri - is one reflection of its ire. In addition, Arab coalition spokesman Ahmad Al-'Asiri explicitly called on Lebanon to stop Hizbullah from sending fighters to Yemen and Syria.[6]   

Following Saudi Arabia's punitive measures, and especially after the OIC and the interior ministers' council designated Hizbullah a terrorist organization, the Lebanese government, and especially the March 14 Forces, found themselves in a difficult situation: Saudi Arabia expected them to side with it and take a stance against Hizbullah, but they feared taking measures that would anger Hizbullah and could harm Lebanon's internal stability. A reflection of this fear came on March 2, 2016, when Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who belongs to the Al-Mustaqbal faction, Saudi Arabia's ally in Lebanon, refused to support Saudi Arabia's designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Machnouk's position naturally sparked angry responses from Saudi Arabia, and Machnouk returned fire, hinting that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Lebanon's current state by saying that the Arab countries had neglected Lebanon for years.    

In recent days, the tension between Saudi Arabia and Hizbullah escalated even further, and Ahmad Al-'Asiri even hinted at the possibility of a military strike against Hizbullah, when he wrote on his Facebook page: "[Saudi Arabia] respects Lebanon's sovereignty over its territory, but if the need arises, we will target any organization that poses a direct threat to Arab national security, while coordinating [our actions] with the countries in which these organizations are located."[7] Additionally, on February 27 the Saudi television channel MBC aired a comical sketch about Nasrallah, which angered the organization and its supporters and sparked protests against the channel in the southern Dahiya of Beirut.[8]

To see a MEMRI TV clip of the sketch, click below:

This report reviews the Saudi-Lebanese crisis and the positions of the various sides.

Saudi Arabia Suspends Billions In Aid To Lebanon; Gulf States Expel Lebanese Nationals 

On February 10, 2016, a senior Saudi source announced that the kingdom had decided to reassess its relations with Lebanon and to suspend a Saudi aid package of $4 billion intended for the Lebanese armed forces and internal security service. According to the source, these measures were a response to Lebanon's failure to support two resolutions against Iran that were endorsed by all the other Arab countries: a resolution taken at the January 10, 2016 Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, and another taken at the January 21, 2016 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah. The Saudi announcement held Hizbullah responsible for Lebanon's failure to support these resolutions and accused it of taking over the decision-making apparatuses of the Lebanese state.

The two resolutions, initiated by Saudi Arabia, condemned Iran for the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad and accused it of interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries, of sparking sectarian conflicts, and of sponsoring terror. The resolution taken at the foreign ministers' summit also accused Hizbullah, along with other organizations, of involvement in terror in Bahrain. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose party belongs to the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces, represented Lebanon in both meetings. According to him, the decision not to support the January 10 resolution was taken in consultation with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, and stemmed from a desire to preserve Lebanon's national unity, since the resolution accused Hizbullah of involvement in terror in Bahrain. As for the January 21 OIC resolution, Bassil apparently took an independent decision not to support it, even though it did not include any reference to Hizbullah. According to Bassil, his decision was in accordance with the guidelines of the Lebanese government, which call not to involve Lebanon in any regional struggle.

Several days after Saudi Arabia's announcement that it was halting the aid to Lebanon, the crisis between the two countries deepened even further, as additional measures were taken against Lebanon by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait issued travel warnings for Lebanon and advised their nationals to leave this country. The UAE even announced it was reducing diplomatic representation in Lebanon to the minimal level. According to reports in the Lebanese and Arab media, Saudi Arabia also informed the employers of some 90 Lebanese nationals that their employees' work and residence permits had been revoked.[9] The Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported, citing sources in the Lebanese foreign ministry, that the UAE had also decided to expel more than 20 Lebanese workers, most of them from South Lebanon.[10]

The Lebanese press assessed that the Gulf states would take further steps against Lebanon, including: halting flights to and from this country; recalling ambassadors and sending diplomatic staff on leave; refusal to extend employment contracts for businessmen in Lebanon; expelling additional Lebanese workers from the Gulf states, and withdrawing Saudi accounts from the Central Bank of Lebanon.[11]

Iran taking over Lebanon (Al-Sharq, Saudi Arabia, February 26, 2016)

Saudi Press: Hizbullah Is An Iranian Agent That Has Taken Over Lebanon; The March 14 Forces Are Ungrateful

The crisis in Saudi-Lebanese relations was widely discussed in the Saudi government press, which supported the Saudi decision to suspend the aid package to Lebanon and called on the Lebanese government to reassess its relations with Hizbullah. The articles harshly condemned Hizbullah and called it an Iranian agent that has taken over the Lebanese decision-making apparatuses. They stated that Hizbullah is working to divide the Arab world and to implement the aggressive policy of Iran, which intervenes in the affairs of Arab countries and attempts to spark conflicts, crises and chaos in them. The articles also accused Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Michel 'Aoun, of selling out to the Iranians for a handful of dollars.

Several articles also harshly attacked the March 14 Forces, considered to be Saudi Arabia's traditional ally in Lebanon, claiming that its feebleness has enabled Hizbullah to take over Lebanon, and condemning it for not taking a firm stance against this organization and especially of failing to defend Saudi Arabia, which has helped it for years.

It should be noted that the press in other Gulf countries - Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait - also published many articles attacking Hizbullah.

Below is a MEMRI TV clip of recent statements by Gulf politicians attacking Hizbullah:

Al-Sharq Daily: Hizbullah Has Forcibly Taken Over Lebanon's Decision-Making For The Benefit Of Iran

An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq stated: "...Saudi Arabia took a sovereign decision to withhold the planned aid to the Lebanese army and security forces after an overall assessment of its relations with Lebanon. At the same time, Saudi Arabia stressed that it stands with the Lebanese people, regardless of sect...

"The positions taken by Lebanon - [a country] which the [organization] known as Hizbullah has taken over using its Iranian weapons and agenda - did not take into account the historic ties between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon or the Saudi positions that have supported the Lebanese in their economic and political crises. The terrorist Hizbullah militia, which is supported by the Iranian regime, did not take into account that Saudi Arabia is in the heart of any Lebanese who loves his country and his Arab environment...

"Lebanese politicians know full well that the Hizbullah militia has taken over their country and is attempting to transform it into a province subordinate to the Iranian regime."[12]

Al-Yawm Daily: Lebanon Must Reexamine Its Relationship With Hizbullah

Similarly, an editorial in the Saudi government daily Al-Yawm stated: "Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia's decision to reassess its relationship with Lebanon and halt aid to it was a wise decision that serves the common interests of both countries, because Hizbullah is constantly striving to not only tear apart Arab unity, but also to weaken the Lebanese government... Hizbullah continues to reinforce Iranian policy, which the region's peoples oppose. This policy is undertaken openly in all countries of the region, in the form of Iranian rulers interfering in their internal affairs and attempting to spark additional conflicts and crises, start wars, and spread sectarianism among nations that are striving to end their political crises and return to the lap of Arabism. Hizbullah aims to thwart these efforts... Lebanese dignitaries are called upon today to reexamine their relationship with [Hizbullah], seeing that it sows destruction and corruption in South Lebanon and is close to dragging the countries of the region into additional tension and crises [by] implementing Iran's aggressive policy."[13]

Hizbullah in the ranks of "Iran's Revolutionary Guard" (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, February 25, 2016)

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as a caterpillar eating away at the Lebanese cedar tree ('Okaz, Saudi Arabia, February 21, 2016)

Saudi Journalist: We Counted On The March 14 Forces But They Failed; Harsher Measures Are Called For

Saudi columnist Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, writing in the Saudi government daily Al-Jazirah, sharply criticized Free Patriotic Movement chairman Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, accusing them of acting as Iran's representatives. Al-Sheikh also did not spare Saudi Arabia's traditional allies - the March 14 Forces,  headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the chairman of the Al-Mustaqbal faction Sa'ad Al-Hariri - who, he claimed, had failed to prevent the Persian takeover of Lebanon. He wrote: "...Lebanon is a country under Persian occupation. Their agent, Mullah Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Lebanese Hizbullah, is... the spearhead of the Persian Safavid takeover of Lebanon, and he is also the one who has been thwarting Lebanon's presidential elections for nearly a year and a half... He managed to take over Lebanon's diplomatic positions and place them at the service of the Persian imperialist policy in the Arab region... He does this by means of the Maronite Christian foreign minister, the representative of the [Michel] Aoun faction in the Lebanese government...

"I believe that the Lebanese understand only the language of force and determination, the [kind of] treatment they received at the hands of the Syrians when they occupied Lebanon. Had General Michel Aoun and his son-in-law [Bassil] expected such a firm decision [by Saudi Arabia], they would not have dared to throw themselves into the Persians' lap for a few million dollars...This obligates the Gulf [states], and not only Saudi Arabia, to adopt additional escalatory positions, especially considering that Hzzbullah is clearly a terrorist organization and considering that its record of training and financing terror organizations in the Gulf, not only in Saudi Arabia, is now as clear as day. We cannot work with a country where the terrorists have taken over the reins of power. The ruler in Lebanon is the [Iranian rule] of the jurisprudent, not the prime minister. The high commissioner of this Persian occupation is Mullah Hassan Nasrallah, the famous braggart who has made [Ali Khamenei,] the spiritual leader in Tehran, into the sovereign decision-maker in Lebanon. Tammam Salam's government is nothing but a failing municipal council... that allowed Mullah Hassan and Gebran Bassil... to take over the Lebanese decision-making...

"Therefore I unreservedly support any harsh decision - not in order to remedy what these politicians [Nasrallah, Bassil, Aoun and the March 8 Forces] have destroyed - but in order to save Lebanon and the Lebanese from the claws of the Persian occupation. This our last resort, especially after we relied for two decades on the Persians' opponents in Lebanese politics, and particularly on the Al-Mustaqbal faction, to take firm national positions that would save Lebanon and the region from a Persian takeover, but achieved no discernable political result. In fact, the leader [of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, Sa'd Al-Hariri,] conducts his activities by remote control from abroad, and is afraid to confront [the situation] in Lebanon from within Lebanon. He failed miserably in filling the vacuum that was created by Hizbullah's assassination of his father, and seems to be totally incapable of changing the shameful situation of Lebanon and the Lebanese. Therefore there is no choice but to stop the investments and take other harsh positions, including a ban on Saudis traveling to Lebanon... At that point the Lebanese will realize what a disaster Mullah Hassan [Nasrallah] has brought upon them, and then let Iran and its servants help [the Lebanese] and compensate them for their economic disasters."[14]

Lebanon severs itself from the "Arab consensus" (Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 21, 2016)

Saudi Columnist: The Pro-Saudi Lebanese Politicians Have Failed The Most Basic Loyalty Tests

Saudi columnist Hamoud Abu Talib voiced similar criticism in an article in the Saudi government daily 'Okaz, slamming the ingratitude shown by March 14 Forces politicians whom Saudi Arabia has supported: "Throughout its entire history and throughout the crises it experienced, Lebanon has always been Arab [in character], despite its internal sectarian, religious and cultural diversity... [However,] the history of Lebanon and its people was destroyed and besmirched by political wheeler-dealers in Lebanon, who surrendered its Arab character and its glory for the sake of [padding] their bank accounts. This [happened] after the turban-wearing [Nasrallah] from the Dahiya [Hizbullah's stronghold in south Beirut] began running Lebanon and ruling it by means of pawns that are falsely thought to be part of Lebanon's political history - and who sadly include descendants of leaders who maintained historic [ties] with Saudi Arabia. Who would have believed that [Lebanese Prime Minister] Tammam Salam, the son of [former Lebanese prime minister] Saeb Salam, would drag his feet in correcting a scandalous position that was expressed by the foreign minister in his cabinet [meaning Bassil], with an excuse that would embarrass even a fledgling politician. Who would have believed that even those [Lebanese] who are considered 'like family' would fail, or nearly fail, the most basic loyalty tests? Who would have believed that the Lebanese political positions that are currently being expressed against Saudi Arabia - which did not allow Lebanon to collapse even in the darkest times - are being promoted by 'official' Lebanese representatives?... Oh Lebanon, we will continue to love you and we will return to you, as we are obliged [to do], when you get rid of the mafia that is selling you out and revert to your glorious Arabic character." [15]

In a February 22, 2016 televised interview, Saudi Information and Culture Minister 'Adel Al-Toraifi called on the Lebanese to open their eyes and realize Hizbullah is taking over their country. Below is a MEMRI TV clip of his statements:



Responses In Lebanon To The Saudi Measures:

Hizbullah: Saudi Arabia's Suspension Of Aid To Lebanon Is A Failed Attempt At Extortion And Intimidation; We Will Not Remain Silent Over Saudi Crimes

Hizbullah said in a statement that Saudi Arabia had decided about a year ago, when King Salman was crowned, to suspend its aid package to Lebanon, and that the decision had more to do with the Saudis' financial situation than with Lebanon's failure to support the two resolutions at the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).[16]

Hizbullah MP Hassan Fadlallah stated that criticism of his organization was aimed at intimidating and extorting it, but that such criticism "will not change our position, neither on the role of the state nor on its  identity and regional policy."[17]

In a March 1, 2016 speech, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah reiterated these statements, and noted that the Saudi move was aimed at forcing the Lebanese government and other Lebanese political elements to pressure Hizbullah to change its position on Saudi Arabia, and especially to remain silent in light of what he called the Saudi massacres in Yemen: "Saudi Arabia wants the government and political forces [in Lebanon] to pressure Hizbullah to back down from its positions on Saudi Arabia... Saudi Arabia is carrying out massacres daily in Yemen as the world remains silent. But we cannot remain silent over such crimes... The Saudis are attempting to pressure the Lebanese to silence us, but we will absolutely not remain silent. We are at a point where we cannot remain silent.[18]

Hizbullah-Affiliated Daily: We Have Won And The Saudis Have Been Defeated In All Arenas

In a February 24, 2016 article, Ibrahim Al-Amin, head of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, attacked Saudi Arabia and said that its decision to halt the aid package to Lebanon reflected its defeat in regional issues, in light of the victory of the resistance axis: "The oppressive regime in the Arabian Peninsula can do as it pleases... Dust cannot obscure the picture... that shows that we have triumphed over its tyranny, oppression, usurpation, and injustice... Simply speaking, you [the Saudis] have been defeated, and you will yet drink the poison that you yourselves have prepared... You have failed in Syria and will be defeated there; you have failed in Yemen and you will be defeated there; you have failed in Palestine and you will be defeated there; and you have failed in Lebanon and you will be defeated here."

Taunting the Saudis, he added: "Do you [really] believe that suspending aid or lowering [your] level of diplomatic representation can defeat [the Lebanese people?]... Do you [really] believe that by harshly attacking the resistance in Lebanon, you can make excuses for the failure of your state?... Do you believe that the [Lebanese] workers that you are threatening to expel [from your country], who have not been paid in months, will believe your false claims that the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah] is responsible for [their expulsion]? Do you believe that some writers to whom you continue to feed table scraps can create public sentiment [in Lebanon] that will lead to [masses] filling the public squares and streets in order to please the  senility, rashness, and madness [of the Saudi regime]?"

Al-Amin also stated that the Saudis were incapable of subduing Lebanon because their allies in the country are paralyzed: "What table do you want to overturn, and on whose head? With whose strength? To what end? Do you want to spark fitna [among the Lebanese]... and do you truly believe that anyone in Lebanon can upset the [political] situation again [as did the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri]?..."

He concluded by calling on the Saudis to hurry and get out of Lebanon: "If you believe that withdrawing your men and your funds from our country will bring you victory, then I urge you: Defeat us and leave our land and country, today rather than tomorrow..."[19]

Sa'd Al-Hariri: Loyalty To Saudi Arabia Means Loyalty To Lebanon; We Will Not Allow Lebanon To Become An Iranian Province

In contrast, the Al-Mustaqbal faction, led by former Lebanese prime minister Sa'd Al-Hariri, who is known for his support for Saudi Arabia, launched a media campaign against Hizbullah and against Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who also heads the Free Patriotic Movement and is an ally of Hizbullah. At the same time, Al-Mustaqbal began taking steps to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, hoping to please it.

Al-Hariri said in a statement that the Lebanese people were saddened by the Saudi decision to suspend aid to Lebanon, adding that that decision had come "in response to rash decisions [by the Lebanese Foreign Ministry] to withdraw from the Arab consensus and to place Lebanon's foreign policy in the service of a regional axis [i.e. the resistance axis]." Al-Hariri warned that such a policy could "eventually threaten the interests of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living in various Arab countries who constitute an economic and social force" for Lebanon. He said: "The honor of the [Saudi] kingdom and its leaders is the honor of worthy Lebanese, who will not remain silent in light of the crime that has endangered the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese... If anyone believes that Lebanon will unwittingly [let itself] become an Iranian province, they are delusional, and are also toying with the fate of the state and making a decision to drag themselves and others into the abyss."  

Al-Hariri concluded by appealing to the Saudis to reconsider their decision and take into account Lebanon's suffering, from the perspective of a protective "older brother." He also praised the generous financial aid that Saudi Arabia had provided to Lebanon for many years.[20]

In other statements, Al-Hariri called Hizbullah's verbal attacks on Saudi Arabia "unacceptable and unrepresentative of Lebanon and its policy," and accused Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement of removing Lebanon from the Arab consensus in order to back Iran.[21] He added that "loyalty to the kingdom means loyalty to Lebanon," and even circulated a petition of "sympathy for and loyalty to the Arab consensus," collecting the signatures of Lebanese citizens and politicians.[22]

At a February 21, 2016 conference, March 14 Forces leaders accused Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement of causing the rift with Saudi Arabia, underlined that they refused to turn Lebanon into an Iranian "victim," and demanded that the government clearly express the view that Lebanon should identify with the Arab countries and be part of the Arab consensus. Sa'd Al-Hariri also threatened that he himself would take steps if the government did not heed this demand, but did not elaborate further.[23]

Al-Mustaqbal Columnist: Saudi Arabia Is Warning The Lebanese That Their Country Could Become An Iranian Province

Al-Mustaqbal columnist Khairallah Khairallah wrote that the Saudi decision to suspend aid has made the Lebanese realize that their country could become an Iranian protectorate: "One day, it will be obvious that the Saudis have done Lebanon the greatest service of all - they called on the Lebanese to wake up and face reality... [and] to block the danger that  Lebanon will become nothing more and nothing less than an Iranian protectorate. The measures [recently] taken by the Saudis are unprecedented in Lebanon-Saudi relations, and come after Lebanon has proven in a very real way that it has become nothing more than an Iranian colony. The best proof of this is that Lebanon's foreign minister, Gebran Bassil... is now a kind of Iranian foreign minister in every Arab, Islamic, or international forum."

Khairallah also pointed to another reason for Saudi Arabia's anger: "Lebanon has become a platform from which Iran can speak its piece, via its [Lebanon's] media or via its officials. Furthermore, Lebanon is now a base for Hizbullah-sponsored media outlets and television networks, whose entire purpose is to attack Arab countries," especially Saudi Arabia. According to him, the Lebanese government "should have long ago noticed the danger that the state could become an Iranian base" and taken a decisive stand against Hizbullah's verbal attacks on Saudi Arabia.

He concluded skeptically: "Can Lebanon react against Hizbullah - that is, against Iran? Are the Lebanese destined to submit to [Hizbullah's] policy of facts on the ground[?]... Lebanon is in an unenviable situation."[24]

Is The Lebanese Government On The Verge Of Dissolution?

In an attempt to assuage the Saudis' anger, the March 14 Forces demanded that the Lebanese government convene a special session on February 22 in order to issue a statement clarifying their support for Saudi Arabia. At the end of the session, the government released the following statement: "Being that the Constitution determines Lebanon's Arab identity and affinity; [and being that Lebanon] is a founding and active member of the Arab League and is committed to its treaties; and being that [Lebanon] and its Arab sisters maintain historic bonds of brotherhood; and in [a desire] to protect the supreme interest of the Lebanese republic [in a way] that protects Lebanese national unity, we hereby affirm our permanent stand alongside our Arab sisters and our support for Arab consensus on the collective issues with which Lebanon has always been concerned."[25]

It would appear that the Lebanese government had, with this statement, affirmed its support for the Arab countries and for the Arab consensus. However, Hizbullah representatives in the government demanded that it include terms such as Lebanon's "supreme interest" and "national unity," thus qualifying its support for the Arab consensus. With this addition, the statement now seems to imply that Lebanon's support for Saudi Arabia and for the Arab consensus is conditional - that is, it must not contradict Lebanon's national unity.

Additionally, immediately after the government issued its statement, Foreign Minister Bassil convened a press conference and said that the current debate in Lebanon revolves around the question of what comes first: Arab consensus or the country's national unity. According to him, "if we are forced to choose between national unity and Arab consensus then we will choose national unity."[26] These statements - which reiterate a preference to remain neutral in the Saudi-Iranian conflict in order to preserve national unity and not upset Hizbullah - encountered opposition from the March 14 Forces and their allies in government, particularly Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who said that Bassil's statements represented his own opinion only and not the government's official position.[27]

It should be mentioned that on the backdrop of the crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese press estimated that the Al-Mustaqbal faction - Saudi Arabia's ally in Lebanon - would take major steps in protest, such as withdrawing its representatives from the unity government, thereby transforming it into an interim government.[28] Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam even hinted at this, saying: "We might reach a point where we effectively find ourselves with an interim government. Resigning is an option not just for me but for [other] political forces as well."[29] A few days later, the daily Al-Akhbar cited sources at the prime minister's office who said that Salam had no intention of resigning.[30]

It should also be noted that Lebanon has gone two years without a president. In addition, the parliament is paralyzed and hardly convenes due to disagreements between the political forces, and the unity government, though crippled, thus remains the country's only functioning institution. Therefore, if the Al-Mustaqbal faction topples the government by withdrawing from it, this could paralyze Lebanon completely and plunge it into chaos.

Saudi Arabia Furious At Lebanese Government: Is Weak Position Proves Its Subordination To Iran

Two days after the Lebanese government's February 24, 2016 session, the Saudi daily Al-Yawm devoted its editorial to harshly criticizing its statement: "The Saudis and Arabs expected that the Lebanese government session two days ago would result in fundamental steps that would help liberate Lebanon... from the [current] situation, in which it is hijacked by a sectarian Iranian terrorist organization... However, the statement [it issued] only proves that the Lebanese government accepts Iranian dictates and that it clearly supports the position outlined by the Lebanese foreign minister at the Arab League and OIC... The Lebanese government has even begun to compete with the Iranians themselves over who takes a more extreme position, since [the statement] did not expressly condemn the Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy, [while even] Iranian President Rohani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had condemned it... The weak statement by the Lebanese government did not even address the problem that sparked the crisis between the [Saudi] kingdom and Lebanon. This proves that Hizbullah holds the reigns of Lebanese decision-making, and that Lebanese who pretend to weep over Lebanon's sovereignty and the independence of the Lebanese state should immediately confront Hizbullah and liberate their country from the Iranian occupation...

"If Lebanese continue their submission to Iranian militias, in ten years or so they will find themselves being banned from speaking Arabic and being forced to speak Farsi, and forced to show loyalty to the Rule of the Jurisprudent and chant its slogans. Those who refuse to surrender, from all sects and religions, will be expelled from Lebanon with the force of Iranian weapons, and be replaced with Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani militias such as the ones Hizbullah settled in Syria after the Syrians were expelled from their cities, homes, and fields..."[31]

Lebanese Interior Minister: Arab Countries Responsible For Lebanon's Current State

So far, it appears that the Saudi anger has not produced any change in the official position of the Lebanese government and of Saudi Arabia's allies in Lebanon. In fact, at a meeting of the Arab interior ministers' council, held on March 2 in Tunis, Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who belongs to the Al-Mustaqbal faction, refused to support a Saudi-led initiative to designate Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Support for such a designation would have placed the Lebanese government and the March 14 Forces in a difficult situation, for it would have inevitably led to the collapse of the government, in which Hizbullah is a member, and to chaos in Lebanon. Machnouk's decision may have also been motivated by fear of a harsh retaliatory move by Hizbullah.

Machnouk's position enraged Saudi Arabia even further. On March 4, the government Saudi daily 'Okaz published an article by Lebanese journalist Ziad 'Itani, in which he claimed that Lebanon's position at the March 2 meeting of the interior ministers' council was tantamount to "a second assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri." He wrote: "Yes, they [the Lebanese] killed Rafiq Al-Hariri. The first time was on February 14, 2005, when they blew up his motorcade with over a ton of explosives, and the second time was on March 2, 2016, when the Lebanese government refused, by means of its interior minister Nohad Machnouk, to designate Al-Hariri's murderers [i.e., Hizbullah] as terrorists."[32]

Machnouk, it appears, returned fire. In an interview two days later with the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV he made an unusual statement, placing the blame for Lebanon's current situation on the Arab countries, who, he claimed, have long neglected it. He said that "the Arabs' neglect of Lebanon for 30 years has led us to the current situation," and added: "The Arab decision to confront [Hizbullah] was born only a few weeks ago, while we have been doing so [i.e., confronting Hizbullah] for decades, sacrificing martyr after martyr, and this procession of Lebanese martyrs has not ended to this day."[33]     

*E. B. Picali and E. Ezrahi are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1] The package consists of $3 billion for the Lebanese army and $1 billion for the internal security service.

[2] It should be noted that already in November 2015, Saudi Arabia designated 12 Hizbullah operatives as terrorists and leveled sanctions against them. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 27, 2016. Additionally, in December 2015 Saudi Arabia's ArabSat satellite operator stopped carrying Hizbullah's Al-Manar channel and the pro-Hizbullah channel Al-Mayadeen., December 5, 2015.

[3] The attack was in response to Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shi'ite sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6251, Iran Furious Over Saudi Arabia's Execution Of Shi'ite Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, January 4, 2016.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 27, 2016; Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 24, 2016.

[5], February 24, 2016.  The same day, the spokesman of the Yemeni government announced that his country would submit to the UN Security Council evidence that Hizbullah was planning the Houthi attacks and battles against Saudi Arabia and the infiltrations of its territory. According to a February 25, 2016 report in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen captured a ship flying a Russian flag that was carrying weapons sent by Hizbullah to the Houthi rebels.   

[6], February 24, 2016.

[7], February 25, 2016.

[8], February 27, 2016.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 25, 2016; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 26, 2016.

[10] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 20, 2016.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 27, 2016.

[12] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), February 20, 2016.

[13] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), February 22, 2016.

[14] Al-Jazirah  (Saudi Arabia), February 21, 2016.

[15] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 22, 2016.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 20, 2016.

[17] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 22, 2016.

[18] Al-Safir (Lebanon), March 2, 2016.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 24, 2016.

[20] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 20, 2016.

[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 21, 2016.

[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 23, 2016.

[23] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 22, 2016.

[24] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 24, 2016.

[25] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 23, 2016.

[26] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 23, 2016.

[27] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 23, 2016.

[28] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 25, 2016.

[29] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 25, 2016.

[30] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 27, 2016.

[31] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), February 24, 2016.

[32] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 4, 2016.

[33] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 7, 2016.

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