BEIRUT/RIYADH (Reuters) - The waspish cartoon in a Saudi-owned newspaper summed up the anger behind Riyadh’s decision to cancel billions of dollars in military aid and suspend decades of engagement in Lebanon’s fraught politics. “The State of Lebanon: April Fool”, it read.
Published on the same day that a Saudi-owned television news channel shut down its Lebanese operations, Friday’s cartoon was the latest sign of a falling out which began in January and has become increasingly embittered.
The cartoon’s stinging message, that the Lebanese government is a fictitious joke, reflects Saudi Arabia’s conviction that the Shi’ite group Hezbollah, backed by Riyadh’s regional rival Iran, now pulls the strings in Beirut.
But the Saudi response, cutting $3 billion in military aid and another $1 billion to the security services, appeared self-defeating to many Lebanese - by weakening the army, a counter-balance to Hezbollah, it leaves the Shi’ite group even stronger.
“By default we’re abandoning Lebanon to Iran,” said a senior European diplomat. “It’s a big blow to Lebanon”.
It would leave Hezbollah, and by extension the group’s backers in Tehran, more dominant than they have ever been in volatile Lebanon, a Middle East banking and trade center that is also home to more than a million Syrian refugees.
The abrupt Saudi action in February was triggered by Lebanon’s failure to join other Arab governments in condemning attacks three months ago on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The early release from a Lebanese jail of a former minister, convicted of smuggling explosives in a plot allegedly supported by the Iranian-allied Syrian authorities, suggested to Riyadh that Lebanon’s judiciary was also now beholden to its enemies.
Saudi Arabia spearheaded efforts to get Gulf Arab states and the Arab League to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, which led to reports of Lebanese nationals being forced to leave Gulf countries because of alleged Hezbollah links.
Lebanon says it is unable to confirm any expulsions, but politicians in Beirut are taking the reports seriously.
What troubles Saudi Arabia is “a militia that is classified as a terrorist group is now hijacking measures in government,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said last month.
Beyond that, Saudi Arabia believes Hezbollah also projects power - and Iranian influence - well beyond Lebanon’s borders.
The group has fought for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s five-year conflict and Riyadh has accused it of intervention as far afield as Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, accusations Hezbollah denies.
Saudi Arabia’s shift signaled a retreat from a long history of powerbroking in Lebanon.
The kingdom hosted peace talks which ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and, in the post-war years when violence largely subsided but rivalries festered, it supported Sunni Muslims and their Christian allies in the March 14 coalition.
Six years ago, then-king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Beirut to defuse a crisis between March 14 and their March 8 rivals, including Hezbollah, which threatened renewed conflict.
Directly or indirectly, through the billionaire businessman and former prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his assassinated father Rafik, Riyadh also channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to its allies in Lebanon. The Hariri family owns a major Saudi construction firm, Saudi Oger.
Viewed from the Gulf, the kingdom’s actions reflect a rational re-evaluation of the diminishing returns on its efforts in Lebanon, frustration with its increasingly impotent Lebanese allies, and strategic priorities which placed the country well below Syria, Yemen and Iraq in a turbulent Middle East.
“The grant (to Lebanon’s army) was based on the assumption that it would strengthen state institutions and allow them to challenge non-state institutions. This was not happening,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to Riyadh’s Interior Ministry.
“They were convinced Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese state.”
A Riyadh-based diplomat said Saudi Arabia was also frustrated with Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni Muslim politician, who has spent most of the last five years outside the country because of fears for his security. His father was killed in 2005.
Viewed from Beirut, Riyadh’s move appears more emotional than strategic.
“They are actively taking punitive measures,” said a Lebanese analyst with close Saudi contacts, adding that Hariri had no advance warning of the move.
“The Saudis have many fine qualities but statecraft and diplomacy is not one of their skills,” said Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the American University in Beirut.
“They are really worried, frenzied and flailing around and it’s very dangerous. Right now they are acting in a dangerous and reckless way,” he said.
“What they are doing probably alienates Lebanon more from them... (and) strengthens Iranian links, strengthens Hezbollah. Hezbollah is essential to the defense of the country today.”
The group, which has two ministers in the barely functioning government, fought Israel in an inconclusive war in 2006.
Its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has mocked Saudi Arabia in recent speeches, saying it spent large sums of money trying to eliminate Hezbollah over the last decade, and was lashing out after setbacks in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
“Yes, the Saudis are angry with us,” he said in early March. “I understand the Saudi anger. Why? Because when someone fails, the least he can do is get angry.”
Supporters say Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has limited the spillover of fighting into Lebanon. Opponents accuse it of fuelling sectarian violence in the country, violence which led Gulf states to warn their nationals against travel to Lebanon long before the recent campaign against Hezbollah.
The percentage of Gulf visitors to Lebanon has halved since 2009, said Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank. Gulf investment has dropped off and Gulf Arabs have been selling their Beirut homes, he said.
“Obviously Lebanon needs to repair its relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council - it’s a lifeline of our economy,” Ghobril said.
Khouri, the AUB academic, did not rule out future rapprochement, but that appears distant for now.
Friday’s announcement that the television channel Al Arabiya was closing down in Beirut left 27 employees out of work. And hours after Asharq al-Awsat’s cartoon was published, protesters broke into its Beirut offices.
On Sunday, a banner was hung from a bridge over a highway near Beirut. A parody of the Saudi national flag’s image of a sword and the Islamic profession of faith, it showed a bloodied sword poised above a captive’s head. “The deadly House of Saud,” it read.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; editing by Giles Elgood