Saudis urge citizens to leave Lebanon as tensions heat up
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.”