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Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Lebanon and ordered Lebanese imports to stop over the weekend, a further sign of escalating tensions between Riyadh and Beirut. The diplomatic standoff is a blow to the struggling Lebanese economy, amid the political deadlock and economic hardships facing Lebanese citizens. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait have all followed suit, withdrawing their emissaries from Beirut and announcing a similar ban on Lebanese imports.
The argument was apparently sparked by comments from the new Lebanese Minister of Information, George Kordahi, a person named by Hezbollah who criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen during an appearance on a TV show. The comments, which were recorded in August, before Kordahi’s appointment, appear to be an excuse to raise the ante in Riyadh’s long-standing 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 vitality through jobs and expatriate remittances, as well as through public contracts and support to Lebanese political parties. Traditionally, outside powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought to maintain a balance of power in Lebanon. Nonetheless, since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took the reins of power in Riyadh, he has often complained about Hezbollah’s growing dominance in Lebanese politics, widely touted as Iran’s proxy in the country and in the wider region.
It appears the Saudis are using the latest round of economic and diplomatic pressure to once again argue that Hezbollah has accumulated too much power in Lebanon.
In 2017, Riyadh arrested then prime minister Saad Hariri in an astonishing display of brutal power which, nevertheless, by humiliating Hariri and his Future Movement, weakened Riyadh’s main instrument of influence in Lebanon. Now it appears the Saudis are using the latest round of economic and diplomatic pressure to once again argue that Hezbollah has accumulated too much power in Lebanon.
It is difficult to see how the pressure campaign will change the political balance of power in Beirut, although it may isolate and impoverish Lebanese citizens ostensibly sympathetic to Riyadh’s point of view. The campaign is reminiscent of the costly Saudi and Emirati blockade against Qatar from 2017 to 2021, which caused some economic hardship but produced few noticeable political changes.
During this time, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions last week against three prominent Lebanese personalities, including two businessmen allied with the Sunni Future Movement and the Free Christian Patriotic Movement. Traditionally, US sanctions in Lebanon target Hezbollah and its supporters, mainly for involvement in terrorist and other criminal activities. This remains the case with one of the goals announced last week: Jamil Al-Sayyed, parliamentarian and former security chief imprisoned from 2005 to 2009 in connection with the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
On the other hand, the inclusion of the two businessmen, Jihad al-Arab and Dany Khoury, marks a broadening of the sanctions policy. include cases related to corruption in Lebanon. Arab, a tycoon close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has profited enormously from public procurement, especially in garbage disposal and construction. Khoury is close to Gibran Bassil, son-in-law of the Lebanese president and heir to the Free Patriotic Movement. Khoury has also secured major government contracts and is linked with waste disposal schemes that have caused massive environmental damage.
In the past, US sanctions against Hezbollah have barely shaken the group’s political and military might, as it has been able to escape their crippling effects by shifting 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 tied to legitimate businesses and traditional political parties in Lebanon and beyond. The new sanctions may not change their behavior, but they could change the calculation of the myriad of individuals who collectively have made Lebanon a world leader in corruption.
Criticisms of the US sanctions policy described the sanctions as the “snack food” of American foreign policy, a habitual reflex when faced with intractable problems that often do not produce the desired results and rarely add to a coherent strategy. These sanctions could represent a change in strategy, but it remains to be seen whether they succeed where existing sanctions have failed.
In other news
Huge protests defy 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 arrested by military forces at the start of the coup, said he refused to withdraw. Hamdok has since been reportedly released, and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the military takeover, has said Hamdok could retain his post in the new government al-Burhan intends to form.
Sudan coup sparked greater resistance, nationally and internationally, than the many other examples of takeovers and democratic setbacks that have occurred in the region since the popular uprisings that began in late 2010. In the case of Sudan, opponents of the regime military have shown resilience 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, acted quickly to suspend aid unless civil democracy is restored in Sudan.
Until last week’s coup, Sudan was the last country in the Middle East and North Africa region to retain certain democratic gains thanks to its popular revolt, which toppled the dictator of long-standing Omar al-Bashir. With the ongoing nationwide protests and increasing international pressure on the country’s military, it is possible that last week’s takeover was also the first coup to be quashed in the region.
Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international politics program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story”, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions” and four edited volumes on politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the Iraq war. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.