x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Critics of Saudi aid to Lebanon are misguided

The kingdom did not create the situation in Lebanon, it is responding to a situation that exists.

Saudi Arabia’s pledge to provide US$3bn to Lebanon’s army has attracted criticism. But such analysis misunderstands both the Lebanese situation and the one faced by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Start with the criticism that injecting arms into the situation will only inflame it. Saudi Arabia did not create the problems in Lebanon and is only responding to a scenario that already exists. Moreover, the Gulf state is making its pledge openly and publicly, with the full backing of the Lebanese state.

Contrast that with Iran, which has provided money, weapons and training to Hizbollah for many years, and which prodded the militia group into intervening on the side of the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia did not create the reality of a mini-state within Lebanon, and it is now seeking to balance that by empowering the national army and the Lebanese state.

Indeed, this is a move by the kingdom to minimise the impact of the Syrian civil war on its fragile neighbour. It is no secret that Washington’s sudden desire for rapprochement with Tehran has Riyadh concerned. A deal with Iran is a good thing, but a deal at any price is not. With Syria, Saudi is looking to ensure its own security. Gulf leaders have warned privately and publicly that the Syrian conflict will be enormously destructive for the region, but the West appears uninterested.

When Mohammed bin Nawaf, Saudi’s ambassador to the UK, wrote in the New York Times recently that his country “will not stand idly by” over Syria, he was reflecting the fact that the West still believes the Syrian conflict will be “contained”. Saudi Arabia knows that the spillover will come to all parts of the region. If the West is not willing to solve the Syrian crisis, or even to do what is necessary to stop the spillover, it cannot be surprised if regional countries seek to do so themselves.

A second criticism has been that this aid will spark a confrontation with Hizbollah. This ignores the reality of Lebanese politics. Since the end of the civil war there have been dire predictions that Lebanon would spiral into confrontation among its fragile mix of ethnicities. And yet, throughout a tumultuous period, starting with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the withdrawal of Syrian troops, a war with Israel, and now the spillover from Syria, Lebanon has stayed relatively peaceful and remained together. Nobody is keener than the Lebanese to keep their country together. It would be better if this could be done alone, but, for now, Saudi Arabia’s assistance will greatly enhance the power of the Lebanese state.