Saudis urge cit­i­zens to leave Le­banon as ten­sions heat up

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Saudi Ara­bia on Thurs­day urged its cit­i­zens to leave Le­banon “im­me­di­ately” and to avoid trav­el­ing to the coun­try. “The king­dom ad­vised all cit­i­zens not to travel to Le­banon from any other in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions,” said the state­ment re­ported by Al-Ara­biya.

Hours later, Kuwait’s For­eign Min­istry or­dered its na­tion­als to leave Le­banon im­me­di­ately.

Bahrain, an ally of Saudi in the Gulf, also is­sued a travel warn­ing.

Bahrain act­ing in con­cert with Saudi Ara­bia is a re­minder that both coun­tries, along with the United Arab Emi­rates and Egypt, broke re­la­tions with Qatar and ex­pelled Qatari cit­i­zens in June. The calls for cit­i­zens to leave the Land of the Cedars comes amid a war of words be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran and its proxy Hezbol­lah, and in the wake of the res­ig­na­tion of Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri on Satur­day.

Hariri has been mum since then, and only seen rarely, lead­ing to ru­mors he was un­der house ar­rest in Saudi Ara­bia, where he was born and now ap­pears to be stay­ing after his sud­den res­ig­na­tion. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Hariri’s own Fu­ture Move­ment party in a tweet yes­ter­day, Hariri has met with the French, US, EU and UK am­bas­sadors to Saudi Ara­bia.

The re­cent brew­ing con­flict be­tween Riyadh and Beirut con­cerns the role of Hezbol­lah in Le­banese pol­i­tics. In the last 10 years Hezbol­lah has grown in strength in Le­banon to be­come the main power bro­ker, hold­ing the coun­try hostage to its po­lit­i­cal whims. This was ev­i­dent in the strug­gle for the pres­i­dency that left the post open for more than two years un­til the Hezbol­lah ally Michel Aoun was elected in Oc­to­ber 2016.

In a speech on Sun­day after Hariri re­signed, Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah said that there were ru­mors that Saudi Ara­bia wanted to launch some kind of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion against Le­banon. Ac­cord­ing to trans­lated tweets by David Daoud, a re­search an­a­lyst, Nas­ral­lah said it’s not pos­si­ble for Saudi Ara­bia to as­sem­ble “al­lied forces to launch an op­er­a­tion against Le­banon.”

Le­banon is not Ye­men, he pointed out, and Saudi Ara­bia has no bor­ders with the coun­try. “Saudi Ara­bia also has to fig­ure out its own fu­ture be­fore dis­cussing plans about Le­banon,” he said. Nas­ral­lah also claimed that Is­rael would not at­tack Le­banon, be­cause “Is­rael doesn’t work for Saudi,” that only if Hezbol­lah started a war, which it wouldn’t, Is­rael would launch a quick, de­ci­sive war.

The with­drawal of Saudi cit­i­zens from Le­banon is part of a large de­cline in the num­ber of Saudis vis­it­ing the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by Blom­in­vest Bank, the num­ber of Saudis vis­it­ing had al­ready dropped by 63% in 2016 to only around 40,000 peo­ple. It ref­er­enced the ex­ist­ing di­plo­matic ten­sions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia, the Gulf and Le­banon. For in­stance, The Na­tional re­ported in 2016 that the UAE is­sued a travel ban to Le­banon in Fe­bru­ary of that year and Saudi Ara­bia had urged cit­i­zens to leave the same month, sim­i­lar to this year’s events.

This month’s cri­sis is dif­fer­ent be­cause Saudi of­fi­cials such as Thamer al-Sab­han, the min­is­ter for Gulf af­fairs, warned that Le­banon would “be dealt with as a gov­ern­ment declar­ing war on Saudi Ara­bia.”

He tweeted on Thurs­day that “all pre­cau­tion­ary steps are be­ing taken con­sec­u­tively un­til things get back to nor­mal,” in re­la­tion to the urg­ing of cit­i­zens to leave. This tweet could be seen as more mod­er­ate than in the past days.

In con­trast, for­mer US am­bas­sador to Is­rael Dan Shapiro re­marked on Twit­ter that Riyadh’s moves were “a sign of in­creas­ing ten­sion, and con­sis­tent with MBS’s [Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man’s] im­pul­sive, im­pa­tient ap­proach. But not nec­es­sar­ily a pre­lude to war.”

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