Saudi Arabia’s regional orbit is shrinking. And in a world where the price of loyalty has risen with the reemergence of the pre-World War 1 alliance system, Riyadh can no longer afford many friends.
The latest to be scratched off of Riyadh’s Christmas list is Lebanon. Last week Riyadh halted four billion dollars in assistance to the Lebanese army and security forces before most members of the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council urged their citizens to leave Lebanon.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former Lebanese army general told me that Lebanon’s armed forces that are fighting Daesh and al-Qaeda terrorists in parts of the country “were expecting this shipment. The Saudi decision has now put the army’s plans to modernize its arsenal on hold.”
He added however that the new measures “are unlikely to affect the security situation in the country.”
The official explanation for Riyadh’s decision was more finger-pointing at Lebanon’s resistance movement Hizbullah, for what Riyadh termed the group’s ‘hostile’ positions.
But the new measures were clearly hurting institutions in Lebanon not affiliated with Hizbullah, including Riyadh’s own allies in the country. In a bid to explain away the criticism the kingdom accused the Lebanese government of failing to support Saudi Arabia in its tussle with Iran, citing Beirut’s refusal to back Saudi resolutions against Tehran during two meetings of Arab foreign ministers held over a month ago.
But the monarchy in Riyadh, whose total control of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth is the root of all of its power, influence, and success is trying to hide a known secret – it’s running out of cash, and fast.
The low oil prices, costly arms purchases and military adventures in Yemen and Syria have left the kingdom in urgent need of revenue.
The future also looks very costly as the monarchy’s bitter grip on power begins to crack, with trained terrorists from Syria and Iraq coming home to roost and the average Saudi increasingly seeing himself as a citizen and not a subject.
In what some have described as a generous estimate, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the Saudis will be bankrupt by 2020 if they remain on their current course. That would perhaps best explain why the Al-Saud family is now rumored to be floating the kingdom’s official oil company, Saudi Aramco, to private investors as it prepares to take the firm public.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s influence has been dwindling since early 2011, when the pro-Saudi Premier Saad Hariri was forced out of office.
According to classified Saudi documents published by Wikileaks last summer, members of Lebanon’s Saudi-backed March 14 political bloc were pleading for financial assistance from Riyadh as far back as 2012.
“He talked about the difficult financial situation their party is going through, which has reached a point where they can no longer afford the cost of party chief Samir Geagea’s protection,” wrote Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri to the then-foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in reference to Lebanese Forces party-leader Samir Geagea.
Today the March 14 coalition – made up of loosely allied factions who helped shape Lebanon’s political rivalry with the Hezbollah-led Mach 8 alliance since 2005 – is on the verge of collapse.
According to gossip among Beirut insiders, Hariri, who has been hoping to return to the post of Premier for years, is back in Lebanon from self-imposed exile, to fight for his own political survival and that of the entire March 14 coalition.
Hariri’s return to commemorate the 11th anniversary of his father’s assassination earlier this month was almost immediately followed by the resignation of another leading figure in the March 14 bloc – Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi. Despite Rifi’s Hizbullah-bashing on his way out the door, who he accused of ‘obstructing’ the state, speculation is rife that Rifi – who had his eye set on the post of Premier for quite some time and openly opposed Hariri on key issues – was pushed out.
Hariri, Geagea, Rifi and other members of March 14 publicly squabbled over Lebanon’s political paralysis – which has left the country without a president for almost two years – nominating rival candidates and raising serious question marks concerning the unity of their alliance.
And who can blame them? If the Saudis cannot pay for the bodyguards, then it might be time for a change in the party line.
Amid the gradual Saudi withdrawal from parts of the region, concerns have been sparked that further steps could be taken by Riyadh and its neighbors, including the eviction of thousands of Lebanese expats who work in the oil-rich region and transfer millions of dollars to their home country in remittances, giving the Lebanese economy a boost.
But political analyst Dr. Paul Morcas says that, socio-economically, Lebanon will survive.
“The Lebanese diaspora in the Gulf will only be partly affected and there is millions of Lebanese living all over the world and not just in the Gulf. I am not trying to say this is good, it’s bad but it’s not bad to the extent that the financial and economic standing of Lebanon will be destroyed. We are under pressure but we are not existentially threatened because the Lebanese economy is always under pressure for different reasons and it has proven that it can survive.”
Nada, a Beirut resident, who I caught up with on her way to work the morning after the restrictions were announced, jokingly dismissed concerns over the new GCC measures.
“In Lebanon we are used to the instability. If everything is going well, that would be something to worry about.”
Source: al-Ahed News