By Enes Kanli
While recent Saudi-led sanctions against Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement have yet to bear fruit, experts say they are indicative of Riyadh’s commitment to fighting perceived Iranian influence in the region.
On Feb. 19, Riyadh canceled a promised $4-billion grant to the Lebanese army, highlighting the deteriorating relations between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia accuses Shia Hezbollah -- Lebanon’s most powerful military force -- of serving as a proxy for Shia Iran and of hijacking Lebanese policy-making.
Since 2012, Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to support the Assad regime, while Riyadh remains one of Assad’s staunchest foes.
Hezbollah, for its part, criticizes Saudi military intervention in Yemen, where Riyadh is leading a fierce a campaign against the Shia Houthi militant group, which overran much of the country in 2014.
One day after Riyadh cut military aid to the Lebanese army, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member -- declared its "full support" for the move.
In a veiled reference to Iran, the GCC (which also includes Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) voiced its "deep regret" that Lebanese policymaking had become "hostage to the interests of external powers".
The moves came after Beirut declined to condemn an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran by Iranian protesters, who ransacked the embassy in early January to protest the execution days earlier of a prominent Shia cleric by the Saudi authorities.
Following the embassy incident, several Arab countries -- led by Saudi Arabia -- cut diplomatic relations with Iran.
According to Hanin Ghaddar, a nonresident fellow at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Saudi-led punitive measures against Hezbollah have yet to affect the group’s position in Lebanon or its regional policies.
However, recent U.S. sanctions imposed on Hezbollah were expected to take a toll on the Shia movement, Ghaddar told Anadolu Agency.
On Dec. 18, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which is aimed at expanding economic sanctions on the group.
"Sanctions are only the beginning," said Ghaddar. "They will not only harm Hezbollah’s economic capacities, but will also affect Hezbollah’s economic relations with other entities."
"Hezbollah doesn’t enjoy the popularity it used to have," she added. "As the group’s financial difficulties increase, so will the popular dissatisfaction with its policies."
"Hezbollah’s war in 2006 was a legitimate one, waged to liberate Lebanese land [from Israeli occupation]," said Ghaddar. "But now [after the group’s intervention in Syria], people understand it’s only working to further Iran’s regional agenda."
Abdullah Baabood, for his part, director of Qatar University’s Gulf studies program, warned that Saudi-led sanctions on Hezbollah could end up pushing Beirut even further into the arms of Iran.
"The sanctions imposed on Hezbollah were ultimately aimed at Tehran," he said. "But this policy will only serve to push Lebanon even further into the Iranian orbit."
Mounting Saudi-Lebanese tensions: A timeline
- Feb. 19: Riyadh cancels a promised $3-billion grant to the Lebanese army for the purchase of French arms and a $1 billion grant to Lebanon’s internal security forces. Shortly afterward, GCC members warn their respective citizens against visiting Lebanon.
Feb. 22: The Lebanese government holds an emergency meeting to discuss Riyadh’s decision to cut aid. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam announces his intention to visit several Arab states in a bid at reconciliation, although the planned tour has yet to take place.
March 1: Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah slams Saudi Arabia, holding it responsible for recent acts of terrorism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
March 2: The GCC collectively designates Hezbollah a "terrorist" group. The same day, Arab League interior ministers -- with the exception of those from Lebanon and Iraq -- follow suit.
March 11: Hezbollah is designated a "terrorist organization" at the Arab League’s 145th foreign ministers' meeting, although the Iraqi, Algerian and Lebanese FMs decline to support the decision.
March: Hundreds of Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrian nationals are deported from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE amid allegations that they have ties with Hezbollah.
April 1: The al-Arabiya and al-Hadath television channels -- both of which are operated by the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) -- close their Beirut offices citing "security reasons". The same day, the Beirut office of Asharq al-Awsat, a pro-Saudi daily, is attacked after the paper publishes a cartoon questioning the sovereignty of the Lebanese state.