As Iran nuclear deal nears, Saudi Arabia rebuilds stake in Lebanon

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) – Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is due to visit Saudi Arabia within the next two weeks, a first trip by a Lebanese prime minister to the Arab powerhouse in nearly four years following a unprecedented breakdown of relations.

The last visit was in 2018 by then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned in 2021 nearly nine months after being tasked with forming the country’s government.

One of Lebanon’s biggest benefactors, Saudi Arabia’s ties with Beirut have steadily deteriorated over the past decade, a split fueled by the growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah in the country. It happened in 2017 when Hariri, once Saudi Arabia’s main ally in Lebanon, quit in a statement televised from Riyadh. Lebanese politicians said he was forced to make the decision after being detained in the kingdom. Hariri and Saudi Arabia have denied these allegations.

Tensions peaked with a breakdown in relations in October following Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi’s open criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. The comments were made before Kordahi took office, but Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states withdrew their envoys from Beirut after recordings of the critics surfaced. The minister subsequently resigned.

Lebanon has been suffering for more than two years from a financial crisis which, according to the World Bank, is one of the worst in the world since the 19th century. The Levantine country’s woes were further exacerbated by political wrangling, corruption, and disputes over a delicate system of power-sharing.

Ties with Riyadh, however, seem to be recovering. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies Kuwait and Yemen have announced that they will restore their ambassadors to Beirut. The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon also hosted a Ramadan iftar banquet, which was attended by Lebanese leaders and former officials.

Do the Saudi and Arab overtures to Lebanon indicate a turnaround? And why now?

Michael Young, editor of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told CNN what this means for Saudi-Lebanese relations and for the region as a whole.

How have Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states deteriorated since 2017, and particularly over the past year?

The relationship for a number of years was problematic because the Saudis reasonably believed Hezbollah to be the dominant political force in the country. This has also been exacerbated in part by the fact that Hezbollah has sided with the Houthis in Yemen and is of course a close ally of Iran. This generated Saudi ill will towards Lebanon. This situation has also been aggravated by the fact that relations between Saudi Arabia and Hariri have not really been very good in recent years.

At the same time, I think Saudi interests had shifted elsewhere. The eye of the Saudis is of course on Iran, but relations with the United States and the war in Yemen have been a major concern.

What do you think of the recent openings of the Gulf States? Are ties on the mend?

There is a new way Arab countries in general are dealing with both Syria and Lebanon… The openness to Lebanon is something along the lines of the openness to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. These two are not completely separate.

The Arab attitude today is that they need to engage more with Syria and Lebanon. If they want to contain Iran in the region, they must reopen ties, [and] rebuild their stakes in countries like Syria and Lebanon. And so it makes sense to them right now, especially if the JCPOA [the collapsed 2015 Iran nuclear agreement currently in renegotiation] is going to be signed, to take a new position, no longer a policy of isolation, but a policy of strengthening their holdings in both countries.

How is Lebanon benefiting from improved relations with Saudi Arabia? Could they help him out of the economic turmoil?

I don’t think anyone wants to give money to Lebanon until there are economic reforms in the country. Nobody wants to lose money in Lebanon like before. If in the future Lebanon will benefit from economic aid, this must obviously come mainly from the Arab world, in particular from the Arab countries of the Gulf. Any Sunni Prime Minister in Lebanon, and in particular the current Sunni Prime Minister Mikati, has an interest and is very keen to maintain good relations with the Gulf countries. And they don’t want to allow Hezbollah to undermine those relationships.

I don’t see any money coming from the Gulf States until reforms are introduced… The Gulf will watch things like the progress of Lebanon’s deal with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). If Lebanon introduces reforms and the agreement with the IMF is concluded, there is a good chance that it will help Lebanon. But until then, all they are prepared to do is help Lebanon for humanitarian reasons, which basically means that they will not go through the Lebanese state.

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