Saudi Arabia orders its citizens out of Lebanon, raising fears of war

The New York Times reports: 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.”

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. [Continue reading…]

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