Saudi Arabia’s latest pressure campaign on Lebanon could backfire

Saudi Arabia’s latest pressure campaign on Lebanon could backfire

Thanassis Cambanis

Saudi Arabia withd-rew its ambassador to Lebanon and or-dered a halt to Lebanese imports over the weekend, in another sign of escalating tensions between Riyadh and Beirut. The diplomatic standoff represents a major blow for Leba-non’s struggling economy, amid the political impasse and economic hardships faced by Lebanon’s citizens. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait have all followed suit, withdrawing their envoys from Beirut and announcing a similar ban on Lebanese imports.

The row was ostensibly triggered by comments m-ade by Lebanon’s new info-rmation minister, George Kordahi, a Hezbollah-aligned appointee who criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen in an appearance on a television show. The comments—which were recorded in August, before Kordahi was appointed—seem to be an excuse to raise the stakes in Riyadh’s long-running struggle for power and influence in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have long been influential players in the country, providing much of its economic lifeblood through expatriate jobs and remittances, as well as through public contracts and support to Lebanese political parties. Traditio-nally, external powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought to maintain a balance of power within Leb-anon. Nonethel-ess, ever since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took the reins of power in Riyadh, he has frequently complained about the incr-easing dominance in Leba-nese politics of Hezbollah, widely portrayed as Iran’s proxy in the country and the broader region.

It seems the Saudis are using the latest round of economic and diplomatic pressure to once again make the case that Hezbol-lah has accumulated too much power in Lebanon.

In 2017, Riyadh detained then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri in a stunning display of brute power that nonetheless, by humiliating Hariri and his Future Movement, weakened Riyadh’s main instrument of influence in Lebanon. Now it seems the Saudis are using the latest round of economic and dip-lomatic pressure to once again make the case that Hezbollah has accumulated too much power in Leban-on. It’s difficult to see how the pressure campaign will change the political balance of power in Beirut, although it could isolate and immiserate Lebanese citizens ostensibly sympathetic to Riyadh’s point of view. The campaign recalls the costly Saudi and Emirati blockade against Qatar from 2017 to 2021, which caused some economic hardship but produced few discernible policy changes.

Meanwhile, the United States Treasury Department levied sanctions last week against three prominent Lebanese individuals, incl-uding two businessmen allied with the Sunni Future Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. Traditionally, U.S. sanctions in Lebanon have targeted Hezbollah and its supporters, mainly for involvement in terrorist and other criminal activities. That remains the case with one of the targets announced last week: Jamil Al-Sayyed, the parliamentarian and former security chief who was imprisoned from 2005 to 2009 as part of the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

By contrast, the inclus-ion of the two businessmen, Jihad al-Arab and Dany Khoury, marks a broadening of sanctions policy to include corruption-related cases in Lebanon. Arab, a magnate close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has profited enormously fr-om public contracts, including in waste disposal and construction. Khoury is close to Gibran Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanon’s pr-esident and the heir apparent of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Khoury has also received large public contracts and is connected to waste disposal schemes that have caused massive environmental damage.

In the past, U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah have barely dented the group’s political and military power, as it has been able to evade their crippling effects by moving most of its finances out of the international banking system.

But the targets of the new round of sanctions are much more integrated into the global financial system, and most of them are connected to legitimate businesses and mainstream political parties in Lebanon and beyond. The new sanctions might not change their behavior, but they may change the calculus of the myriad individuals who collectively have made Lebanon a world leader in corruption.

Critics of U.S. sanctions policy have described sanctions as the “snack food” of U.S. foreign policy, a habitual reflex to intractable problems that often don’t produce their intended results and rarely add up to a coherent strategy. These sanctions could represent a shift in strategy, but it remains to be seen whether they succeed where existing ones have failed.

In Other News

Huge protests challenge the coup in Sudan. Tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens took to the streets over the weekend to oppose last week’s military coup, with at least three protesters killed on Saturday. Meanwhile, civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was detained by military forces at the outset of the coup, said he refused to step down. Hamdok has reportedly since been released, and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the military takeover, has said Hamdok might retain his position in the new government al-Burhan intends to form.

The coup in Sudan has drawn more sustained resistance, domestically and internationally, than the many other examples of takeovers and democratic backsliding that have occurred in the region since the popular uprisings that began in late 2010. In Sudan’s case, opponents of military rule have proven resilient in the face of violent reprisals from the armed forces and its affiliated paramilitaries. And the international community, including the United States and the World Bank, has moved swiftly to suspend aid unless civilian democracy is restored to Sudan.

Until last week’s coup, Sudan was the last country in the Middle East and North Africa region that had preserved some measure of democratic gains as a result of its popular revolt, which overthrew longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. With the ongoing domestic protests and mounting international pressure on the country’s military, it is possible that last week’s takeover might also be the first coup in the region to be reversed.

His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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