Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) meets the Saudi King's envoy Nizar bin Suleiman al-Aloula (C) in Beirut on Wednesday. Photo: Lebanese government / Anadolu

Saudi Arabia has announced it will lift its travel ban on Lebanon, signaling a new course of engagement by the crown prince and lowered expectations over the role of Hezbollah.

“The security reasons that [prompted] Saudi Arabia to warn its citizens against traveling to Lebanon no longer exist,” Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Bukhari said Wednesday evening, in the company of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

“Based on the assurances that the kingdom received from the Lebanese government about the stability of the security situation … Saudi Arabia lifts its warning to its citizens traveling to the Lebanon.”

But the announcement signals a policy shift, not a security reassessment by Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom first warned its citizens against traveling to Lebanon in 2012 and 2013, when the conflict in neighboring Syria was spilling over in the form car bombs and amid a spate of kidnappings of Gulf nationals. The total ban came only later, in 2016, when the security situation had calmed but Saudi Arabia was engaged in a worsening standoff with its regional rival Iran.

Riyadh, followed by Abu Dhabi and Manama, banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon in February 2016, after Lebanon’s foreign minister refused to join the Arab League in condemning a mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Gulf investment has long been key to Lebanon’s economic stability, and the de facto boycott by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and its allies has been detrimental.

Turning the page

The Saudi travel announcement comes on the heels of the formation of a new government in Lebanon on January 31, a last-ditch effort by Prime Minister Hariri to revive the tanking economy.

While many of the faces in the cabinet are the same, it presents a new opportunity for the Gulf to re-engage.

Hariri has for his part spent the past weeks and months shuttling between Gulf capitals, this week attending the World Government Forum in Dubai where he pledged to tackle corruption and improve the ease of doing business in Lebanon.

The lifting of the Saudi travel ban signals that Hariri’s efforts have been paying off, and that Riyadh has reverted to its longstanding policy of engagement in Beirut. It also follows offers of support to Lebanon by Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals, Qatar and Iran.

Riyadh has traditionally adhered to the view that backing Lebanon’s national institutions, namely the military, was the best way to offset the influence of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed the role of Saudi defense minister in 2015, the kingdom noticeably hardened its stance. In February 2016, the prince’s father Salman pulled $4 billion in grants pledged by the former King Abdullah to the Lebanese military and security forces. The travel ban followed.

The uncompromising position toward Lebanon reached its apex in November 2017, when Hariri was called to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the crown prince and was subsequently pressured to quit his office via a televised address, blaming Hezbollah. The move backfired, and through French mediation and pressure from his allies, the prime minister was able to board a plane out of the kingdom the following month, soon resuming his post.

Hariri has scarcely spoken of his ordeal since and has instead worked to repair ties with his longstanding patrons in Riyadh. His efforts appear to finally be paying dividends.

Syria backdrop

Saudi Arabia’s newfound acceptance of Hariri’s working relationship with Hezbollah is also a signal the monarchy is ready to move past its problems with the Syrian government next door.

The latest move is part of a “regional detente”, according to Amal Saad, a political science professor at Lebanese University, with a forthcoming book on Hezbollah’s evolution from a national movement to a regional force.

“Syria is of course the backdrop to this, because it coincides with detente with [Bashar al-]Assad via other Arab states,” she told Asia Times. Those include the United Arab Emirates, which enjoys seamless security ties with Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, a vassal state of the kingdom. Both re-opened embassies in Damascus in December — decisions that would have had the Saudi green light.

Saad assesses that the military package to Lebanon could be saved as a carrot for some point in the future.

Nasser Elamine, a journalist focused on Lebanon’s economy, sees the Saudi opening in the context of its competition with Iran, noting that Iran’s top diplomat Javad Zarif recently offered support to Lebanon in all sectors.

Now that the Saudi monarchy has approved of its citizens doing business in Beirut, “it’s likely they’ll propose sending aid as well later on”, Elamine said.

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