Saudi Arabia Orders Its Citizens Out of Lebanon, Raising Fears of War
Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon on Thursday, escalating a bewildering crisis between the two Arab nations and raising fears that it could lead to an economic crisis or even war.
The order came after Saudi Arabia had stepped up its condemnations of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, and asserted that Lebanon had effectively declared war on Saudi Arabia.
The developments plunged Lebanon into a state of national anxiety, with politicians, journalists and even parents picking up their children at school consumed with the question of what could come next.
While analysts said a war was unlikely — because Saudi Arabia was not capable of waging one and Israel did not want one now — they worried that with so many active conflicts in the region, any Saudi actions that raised the temperature increased the risk of an accidental conflagration.
“There are so many fuses, so little communication, so many risks of something exploding, that there’s little chance of something not going wrong,” said Robert Malley, the former director of Middle East policy in the Obama White House and now vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group. “Everything needs to go right to maintain calm.”
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The backdrop to the crisis was a series of steps by Saudi Arabia in recent days to confront its ascendant regional rival, Iran, and the surprise arrests of about 200 Saudis, including 11 princes, in what the government describes as an anti-corruption campaign but which critics see as a consolidation of power by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Lebanon had already been drawn into the crisis in two ways: After a rocket was fired from Yemen at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday, Saudi officials accused Hezbollah and Iran of aiding in the attack. And they declared that the attack amounted to a declaration of war by Lebanon, a leap given that the weak Lebanese state does not control Hezbollah.
At the same time, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, unexpectedly flew to Riyadh and declared his resignation there on Saturday. Suspicions were growing among officials and diplomats in Beirut on Thursday that he had not only been pressured to do so by Saudi Arabia but was being held there against his will.
Despite the worries, analysts, officials and diplomats said that although they were not privy to the thinking of the Saudi crown prince, it was far-fetched that Saudi Arabia would launch a military action against Lebanon, since it is already overstretched in a war it started two years ago against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen.
And Saudi Arabia has expressed displeasure with Lebanon this way before: This was at least the fourth time in five years that it asked its citizens to leave Lebanon.
But even before the current crisis, fears were building in Lebanon that Israel — which shares Saudi Arabia’s goal of rolling back Iranian power — would instigate another war against Hezbollah to curtail the increased power, influence and weaponry the Lebanese group has accumulated while playing a decisive role in the war in neighboring Syria.
Several Israeli officials seized on Mr. Hariri’s resignation — which he attributed to Iranian interference — as proof that Hezbollah, Iran and the Lebanese government were one and the same. That has fueled anxiety even as both Israel and Hezbollah insist that while they are prepared for a war, they do not want one now.
Reaction in Washington on Thursday to Saudi Arabia’s decision to order its citizens out of Lebanon was also cautious.
“I don’t think we’re on the brink of war, but it certainly constitutes an escalation,” said Andrew Exum, a former top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon, said in a telephone interview.
The question was whether heightened tensions would start one anyway.
Israeli officials, while cheering Prince Mohammed’s tough line on Iran, said they were uncertain that the crown prince was experienced or adroit enough to avoid setting off a broader regional conflict, perhaps one that could drag Israel in.
“Israel has two objectives: to stop Iran’s path towards dominance and hegemony in the region, and to create an alliance of the rational players in the region that would include Israel,” said Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet. “That is certainly a positive development to have such an alignment. At the same time, we have to be very cautious to prevent an unnecessary escalation in the region.”
Daniel B. Shapiro, a former United States ambassador to Israel, said more bluntly that it was one thing for Israel to see eye to eye with Saudi Arabia about who their adversaries were, “but it’s another to let a young, impulsive leader set the pace, when he won’t have to do all the fighting.”
Adding to the confusion, no one professes to understand Saudi Arabia’s logic or goals in Lebanon. Mr. Hariri’s resignation, apparently aimed at isolating Hezbollah, seemed likely only to strengthen it and its allies. It has humiliated Mr. Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s main ally in the country, created a potentially destabilizing political crisis in Lebanon and given Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, an opportunity to appear the elder statesman, calling for calm and declaring that Mr. Hariri is welcome back any time.
Some analysts suggested the Saudi escalation in Lebanon was less about making a dent in Hezbollah’s power and more a distraction from what appears to be a political purge at home and largely failed attempts to counter Iran in Syria and Yemen abroad. The developments fueled speculation that Prince Mohammed might be positioning himself to announce his accession to the throne.
“Maybe he felt he could score easier points in Lebanon and say internally, ‘Look, I’m being tough against Hezbollah,’ ” said Michael Young, a Lebanese analyst. “All this suggests to me that the arrival of King Mohammed is going to be sooner than later.”
Rather than war, analysts say Saudi Arabia’s next steps against Lebanon may be economic, like the boycott and blockade Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies are conducting against Qatar.
Saudi Arabi and its allies could expel Lebanese citizens, close air routes, cut off diplomatic relations and demand that Hezbollah be thrown out of government or forced to disarm, the political blogger Elias Muhanna wrote.
Those measures would be likely to hurt Hezbollah least, since unlike other parties and ordinary Lebanese, it can draw on extensive financial support from Iran.
But none of that was reassuring to people in Lebanon, a country of about 6.2 million people that for most its history has been batted between regional and global powers, most recently between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that exploit its own internal divisions. The country survived a devastating war in 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw.
Lebanon was transfixed all week by the question of why Mr. Hariri had not come back or spoken to journalists or even many of his political allies and advisers. Lebanese followed social media sites late Wednesday night tracking a flight from Riyadh that they thought he might be on. He wasn’t.
His political party, the Future Movement, stopped short of publicly agreeing with Hezbollah and its ally, President Michel Aoun, that Mr. Hariri was a hostage. But it issued a statement implying he was not operating under his own free will, referring to him as still being the prime minister.
His return “is necessary to restore dignity and respect to Lebanon,” the statement said, stressing its support for his leadership and vowing “to follow him in whatever he decides.”
Mr. Hariri, a dual citizen of Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, met the ambassadors of Britain and the European Union and the chargé d’affaires from the American Embassy on Wednesday and Thursday at his Riyadh residence. Other Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that those envoys, too, came away with the impression that he could not speak freely.
The American ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richards, posted photographs of a meeting with Lebanese Army officials and emphasized international support for the Lebanese government.
But President Trump in recent days has posted on Twitter messages of unspecified support for Saudi Arabia’s rulers, saying they “know exactly what they are doing.”
Lebanon tried to handle the stress with its customary mix of jitters and jadedness. People debated whether to stock up on canned food for a coming war, but also ratcheted up the black humor.
“Saudi Arabia should pay for our therapy,” Karim Traboulsi, an editor at the news site The New Arab, wrote in a post on Facebook.
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