A Lebanese woman stands next to her empty refrigerator in her apartment in the port city of Tripoli north of Beirut on June 17, 2020. While Lebanon's economic crisis has plunged whole segments of the population into poverty, the political leadership snubs the country's benefactors. Photo: AFP / Ibrahim Chalhoub

Saudi Arabia may have dealt Lebanon’s rulers – Hezbollah and the oligarchs – a fatal economic blow by scaling down its diplomatic ties and closing off Saudi markets to Lebanese exports.

While it is tempting to think of the Saudi move as a welcome wake-up call for the Lebanese, judging by past behavior, the oligarchs are unlikely to change course, and will most likely persist in their tried-and-failed policies that have only bred economic collapse and misery.

Riyadh’s escalation might seem to have been the result of comments made by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi in which he blamed Arab Gulf countries for the war in Yemen, saying that the Houthis – whose occupation of Sanaa started the war – were only defending themselves against Saudi aggression. 

Before serving in the cabinet, Kordahi was best known for hosting televised game shows on Saudi networks. His knowledge of politics is minimal, and his awareness of policymaking is even less.

Kordahi’s comments alone, which were made several months ago before he became a minister, could not have flipped Saudi Arabia. They proved to be, however, the last nail in the coffin of a once thriving relationship that has been deteriorating over the past few years, mainly because of Hezbollah’s expanding influence in Lebanon and its complete domination of its policies.

The Saudi move cost Lebanese exporters their fourth-biggest market, more than a quarter of a billion US dollars a year. Lebanon will also lose Riyadh’s foreign direct investments, which in 2015 neared $1 billion. And by prohibiting its nationals from visiting Lebanon, perhaps for fear of harm or harassment by Hezbollah, Riyadh will deprive Beirut of the desperately needed stream of foreign currency that Saudi tourists usually carry to Lebanon.

Stopping Lebanese imports into Saudi Arabia has been long in the making after Saudi authorities intercepted shipments of narcotics from Lebanon, usually hidden in produce. The drug trade is one of Hezbollah’s top revenue makers.

Saudi Arabia demanded that the Lebanese state enforce better controls on its border crossings to make sure that exports are free of illicit material. In Lebanon, however, state authority proved too weak to intercept any Hezbollah shipments going in or out of the country. Given such failure, Riyadh decided to stop its imports from Lebanon.

Riyadh, however, proved to be considerate enough by differentiating between Beirut’s rulers and the Lebanese who live and work in Saudi Arabia. Estimates have it that 300,000 Lebanese live in the kingdom, making them the largest expatriate community. Remittances of these expats help keep hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon from falling into poverty.

The Saudi government has tolerated Lebanon’s ungrateful and belligerent policies toward the kingdom for a long time. 

When Lebanese diplomacy broke with Arab consensus at the Arab League by abstaining on a resolution that denounced the Iranian government for burning down the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad in 2016, Riyadh still gave Lebanon the benefit of the doubt. 

When, in 2018, France led a donors’ conference to lift up a diving Lebanese economy, Saudi Arabia stood out as the largest single donor when it pledged $1 billion out of a total of $11 billion. The US threw in a billion of its own, and the rest of the world raised the balance.

At the time, despite its reservations over Hezbollah’s antagonism toward Saudi Arabia and the complicity of the Lebanese state with the pro-Iran militia, Riyadh still looked the other way and extended Lebanon a lifeline that was designed to help the country reform and reboot its economy.

But the Lebanese state proved too weak to implement any of the reforms required before Beirut could receive any aid money. The country’s economy plunged deeper into recession and now suffers runaway inflation and increasing poverty.

Since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest supporters and sponsors of Lebanon and its stability.

In 1989, Saudi Arabia hosted and engineered the Taif Agreement that led to the end of the 15-year civil war. After the conflict, as after every round of war with Israel, Saudi Arabia was the first to offer Lebanon donations for reconstruction and to deposit foreign currency at the Lebanese central bank to keep the economy, and more importantly the national currency, afloat.

For more than a decade now, many Lebanese have taken Saudi Arabia for granted, reciprocating support with insults, contraband and taking the side of Riyadh’s enemies, first and foremost Iran, which invests nothing in the Lebanese economy.

Lebanese rulers are known for pursuing personal interests at the expense of national ones. As long as Hezbollah decides who rules Lebanon, the Lebanese government will go with Iran against their national interests, which are better served by sticking with Saudi Arabia instead. Too bad the Lebanese do not see this, or see it but do nothing about it.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @hahussain.