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Saudi Arabian citizens ordered to leave Lebanon amidst tensions rising

Citizens have been ordered to leave Lebanon, a decision which came after a week of rhetoric from the Sunni Arab powerhouse about its Shia rival

10 November 2017, 9:33am
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Saudi Arabia has ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately, escalating a regional standoff with Iran centred on the fragile state, which it claims is being run by Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah.

The decision came after a week of rhetoric from the Sunni Arab powerhouse about its Shia rival, drawing strong support from Israel, as well as the US, all of whom insist that Iran is forging strongholds across the region.

The standoff has taken tensions between Riyadh and Tehran to new levels and raised fears that decades of distrust and manoeuvrings between the two may be building towards a military confrontation, underwritten by the Trump administration and joined by Israel.

The Saudi order for its citizens to leave, also made by the kingdom’s allies in Bahrain and Kuwait, came after the country’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that his government would treat Lebanon as a hostile state, so long as Hezbollah was in the government.

He described Hezbollah’s participation in government as an “act of war” against Saudi Arabia. 

The Israeli intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, said on Thursday he believed conditions were ripe for a diplomatic offensive against Iran and Hezbollah at the United Nations, where he said Israel would seek better enforcement of a 2006 ceasefire agreement that called on Hezbollah to disarm and stay away from its border. 

Allegations of a pact, on a de facto level, between Saudi Arabia and Israel were given impetus after it was revealed that Israeli diplomats were asked to repeat talking points, almost identical to remarks made by Saudi leaders after Saturday’s resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, claiming Hezbollah had made his job impossible.

The emergence of the reported memo sent to Israeli missions around the world strongly echoes public statements made by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Hariri had led the government in Lebanon for 11 months after five years in exile, mainly in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was a prominent patron of Hariri, but he had fallen out of favour with his hosts after the collapse of the construction sector, during which a company he chaired, Saudi Oger, incurred large debts. 

In the past week, Hariri has acted as an envoy for Riyadh, travelling to Bahrain and Abu Dhabi to discuss his resignation. Lebanese officials’ claims that the former leader is being “held hostage” have been ridiculed by Hariri’s staff and senior Saudis.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has speculated that Hariri was being held against his will in the kingdom and that it appeared as if Saudi Arabia had forced his resignation.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is visiting the United Arab Emirates, declined to discuss Hariri’s resignation, saying only that he hoped Lebanon would have a new government soon. He was due to travel to Saudi Arabia later on Thursday to discuss the situation in Lebanon and other issues.

Asked if Hariri had sought asylum in France, he said: “We’ve not had any requests.”

Saudi Arabia and Israel have no diplomatic ties and successive Saudi leaders have said that will not change unless a settlement is reached with the Palestinians.

In recent months, senior Israeli politicians have spoken frequently about the role of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, amid a growing conviction that a war with Hezbollah may be inevitable.

Donald Trump meeting the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, during an official visit to Riyadh in May (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
Donald Trump meeting the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, during an official visit to Riyadh in May (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
Israel has been encouraging the Trump administration to take a tougher stance on Iran, both against the nuclear agreement reached during the Obama administration and the country’s expanding influence. Last month, Trump refused to certify elements of the agreement.

Hezbollah has consolidated its position since a brief war with Israel in 2006, and has grown stronger since the formation of Hariri’s government. The president was appointed after nearly two years without a head of state, with the agreement of both capitals. However, since then a political and institutional stalemate has festered.