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Saudi-Lebanese Ties Have a Hezbollah Problem

On January 3, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah issued a strong criticism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In a televised speech, Nasrallah addressed Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz directly, stating, “King, the terrorist is the one who has exported… Daeshi ideology to the world, and it is you,” using the Arabic acronym of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) terror group.

The Lebanese government quickly distanced itself from Nasrallah’s remarks. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati responded the same day, stating, “What … Nasrallah said about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this evening does not represent the position of the Lebanese government and most Lebanese. It is not in Lebanon’s interest to offend any Arab country, especially the Gulf states.” Seemingly in reference to Nasrallah’s remarks, Mikati added, “For God’s sake, have mercy on Lebanon and the Lebanese people and stop the hateful sectarian and political rhetoric.”

Nasrallah’s comments came following a speech by King Salman, in which the latter described Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group, as a “terrorist” organization. The two leaders’ recriminations emerged amid a diplomatic crisis, mainly between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, following a set of controversial remarks made by appointed Minister of Information George Kordahi that circulated widely on social media throughout the Middle East, in which he lambasted the Saudi role in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Although Kordahi’s comments had been made during an interview weeks before he assumed his ministerial role and were never construed to represent the Lebanese government’s position, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) condemned them, and Saudi Arabia severed its ties with Beirut and took punitive measures intended to sanction Lebanon both economically and politically. While Kordahi eventually resigned, the crisis remains unsolved, and has negatively impacted Lebanon’s ties with the other GCC states as well.

Nasrallah’s Escalation: Why Now?

Traditionally, Hezbollah has presented itself as a “resistance” movement whose primary objective is to fight against Israel. Over time, however, the group’s interference in Lebanon’s domestic affairs has increased, and regional countries such as Saudi Arabia have voiced growing concerns about Hezbollah’s influence. The group is increasingly becoming a “state within a state” – if Lebanon, which has remained utterly dysfunctional since its economic collapse in 2019, can truly be called a state. The country’s recent misfortunes, particularly the August 2020 explosion that resulted in more than 200 deaths, have only strengthened Hezbollah’s position.

Hezbollah is also “a strategic asset” for Iran that stretches Tehran’s regional leverage all the way to the Mediterranean. For this reason, it is important to consider the impact of Saudi-Iranian relations on Hezbollah’s ties with Riyadh. Yet, even disregarding the broader Tehran-Riyadh conflict, there are various explanations for Hezbollah’s January escalatory remarks toward King Salman.

One explanation is that King Salman’s description of Hezbollah as a “terrorist” group in a televised speech angered Nasrallah and many of his Lebanon-based supporters. Nasrallah may have seen Salman’s words as an escalation, and, similarly to how King Salman made his comment in a televised speech, Hezbollah’s secretary-general may have decided to respond in the same way. Iran and many of its allies seem to be keen on giving the impression that they do not talk from a position of weakness, but strength. Other explanations suggest that the remarks were driven by a combination of factors, including a perception that Saudi Arabia is an “enemy” of Iran’s (and thus Hezbollah’s) regional project, as well as frustration from Saudi-led coalition’s raids on the Houthis, a group Hezbollah assists.

Regardless of the motivation of Nasrallah’s remarks, it is obvious that the remarks are likely to further complicate the Saudi-Lebanon relationship. Of course, this is not the first time that ties between Riyadh and Beirut have witnessed unease. Even so, the current crisis is ill-timed for Lebanon’s continued stability; as Salman and Nasrallah trade barbs, the Lebanese economy remains in dire straits, with the Lebanese pound at historic lows. Thus, the economic implications of the crisis may be severe on the country’s ordinary citizens.

Riyadh’s Wrath

For Saudi Arabia, there are various possible factors driving its pressure against Lebanon following the circulation of Kordahi’s remarks – especially when considering that this is not the first time a high-profile Lebanese figure publicly criticized the Kingdom. First, one could link Riyadh’s stance on the crisis with Lebanon with Saudi-U.S. relations. Ever since President Donald Trump left the White House, Riyadh appears to have lost a friend who provided the Kingdom with near-unconditional support. When President Joe Biden – who previously called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” – assumed office, Riyadh-Washington ties had a rocky beginning. By publicly increasing its pressure, it is possible that Riyadh could be seeking a tougher stance from the international partners towards the group.

Second, Riyadh views both Hezbollah and the Houthis as Iranian proxies. With Hezbollah providing assistance to the Houthis, Riyadh’s pressure on Lebanon is related to Hezbollah’s role in Yemen. Saudi officials may suspect that pressuring Lebanon could ultimately result in Hezbollah decreasing or ending the support it provides to the Yemeni rebels. However, this line of thinking is probably misguided. It is important to remember that the ongoing conflict in Yemen is primarily a civil war; while Iran appears to have used the conflict to its advantage by strengthening its ties with the Yemeni rebels and increasing its support for them over the years of the war, this does not mean the Houthis are Tehran’s puppets.

Third, the Saudi stance could be tied to Riyadh’s perception of domestic Lebanese politics. Saudi Arabia stood behind the Lebanese Forces’ leader Samir Geagea in his feud with Hezbollah regarding the investigation of the 2020 explosion, while not paying attention to Saad Hariri, who recently stated that he is quitting politics. Of course, given Lebanon’s ongoing issues, it remains to be seen if Hariri will remain outside the political arena forever.

These can all be seen as possible factors driving the Saudi stance toward Lebanon following the circulation of Kordahi’s criticism of the Riyadh-led alliance in Yemen. While there may be other factors influencing the Saudi decision to impose pressure on Lebanon, each of the outlined potential explanations are sufficient to convey the perception that there are possible domestic and foreign factors behind the move.

Kuwaiti Mediation

As the Saudi-Lebanese feud has festered, there have been several attempts to resolve it, and Kuwait in particular has attempted to find a compromise between the two sides. However, Hezbollah, apparently speaking on behalf of the rest of Lebanon without the latter’s consent, rejected the proposal out of hand. In an interview explaining his rationale, Nasrallah said, “Lebanon is a sovereign country and should not be sent dictates.” This unsurprising decision seems to suggest that the Kuwaiti mediation efforts are not suitable for Hezbollah and its allies.

By now, it is clear that the Kuwaiti efforts are unlikely to resolve the crisis. It is now clear that the feud has gone beyond an appointed minister’s errant remarks. Moreover, Kuwait does not have sufficient leverage over either of the two disputed sides, and has virtually none over Hezbollah in particular, making the chances of a successful effort slim to none. Meanwhile, the split between Riyadh and Beirut will push the latter closer to Tehran.

Ultimately, while each party to the dispute may have its calculations, the crisis does not benefit any of them from a realistic point of view. While it can maintain rhetorical independence from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon will find it very difficult to address its vast economic challenges without the GCC states’ assistance. Although Hezbollah and its base of support are not pro-Saudi, they are Lebanese, and will also suffer if the crisis goes unresolved and the economy suffers further. In turn, that may hurt Hezbollah’s domestic popularity, a seemingly concern to Nasrallah and his inner circle. At the same time, the Gulf states, especially the Saudis, have been seeking to counter Iran’s regional influence in recent years by any means necessary. If the Lebanese crisis remains unsolved, Tehran’s hand in the region will only grow stronger. This fact should trouble Riyadh – far more, in any case, than the incendiary comments of a departed minister.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. His articles and work have been published by several media outlets, including Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The American Conservative, and The Globe Post. He tweets as @AZ_Kilani.

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