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Lebanon–Saudi Arabia: The story of a family rupture

Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have shared a profound friendship, as well as political and economic ties, since the mid-20th century. Yet bilateral relations fell apart over the past 10 years amid Saudi–Iranian tensions.

Lebanon–Saudi Arabia: The story of a family rupture

Saad Hariri and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh. (Credit: AFP)

A large black Mercedes threaded its way through a crowd on Hamra’s main street on June 27, 1997, as security services cordoned off Beirut. Then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was behind the steering wheel, all smiles under flashes of cameras and petals that were scattered everywhere.

Then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was in the front passenger seat. Having visited Cairo and Damascus, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz had arrived in the Lebanese capital for a 48-hour visit, during which he met with the country’s political actors. This was the first official visit a senior Saudi official had paid to the land of the cedars since 1971.

Eight years after the signing of the Saudi-sponsored Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s visit signaled a return to normalcy with Lebanon — a country in the throes of reconstruction and under Syria's tutelage — spurring hopes of investments from Saudi Arabia and, more generally, the Gulf countries.

Implicitly, this moment pointed to profound decadeslong friendship — and inextricable political and financial relations — between Beirut and Riyadh.

While the close association between the House of Saud and the Hariris has long been the ultimate representation of these relationships, the Saudi dynasty’s ties with the Lebanese date back to the Ottoman Empire’s fall at the outset of the 20th century. At a time when the French and the British were acrimoniously negotiating the partition of the territory previously under the Sublime Porte’s yoke, the chief of the House of Saud, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, rose to power in the Gulf. He proclaimed himself King of Hejaz and Nejd in 1926–27, unifying the areas he conquered into a single entity and founding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Some Levantines rallied around the Saudi sovereign, who was quick to stand out. Some were even appointed to senior posts in the kingdom, such as Fuad Hamza, a Lebanese national hailing from the Aley district. Hamza served as King Abdulaziz’s personal translator, before being appointed as a Saudi ambassador and then a minister of state.

Mohammad Rachid Rida, a Lebanese intellectual born in Qalamoun village, located just south of Tripoli, is another example.

“Both Muslims and Christians shared the desperate desire to find a real, independent Arab leader,” says Bernard Haykel, the director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia at Princeton University.

“These Levantine Arabs and Egyptians served as valuable sources of advice and awareness of the West and, more generally, the outside world,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Nevertheless, it was not until 1952 — nine years after Lebanon declared independence — that the two countries set up diplomatic relations at the instigation of Ibn Saud and President Camille Chamoun, who paid the kingdom a visit the year after. In turn, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz paid his first official visit to Lebanon in April, where he was welcomed with pomp and met with various political and diplomatic actors.

“Nearly 80,000 Beirutis rallied in the streets of the capital, ornamented in the Saudi and Lebanese colors to greet the prince,” the newspaper Le Jour reported at the time.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Arab diplomat told L’Orient-Le Jour, “The friendly relations between the two countries are also part of broader political choices.”

A tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Egypt

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, an ideological tug of war between the Saudi monarchy, under King Faisal, and Egypt — under the tenure of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power in 1952 and became the megaphone of Pan-Arabism — was well pronounced on the political landscape in the 1950s and 1960s.

It came as no surprise that Lebanon became a focal point of the debate, which deeply divided the region. While Chamoun sided with the pro-West camp, led by Washington — which feared the spread of communism throughout the region and saw Riyadh as a means of offsetting the leading power of the Arab World — Nasserism gained ground among some Lebanese.

The dispute was exacerbated in the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956 and Chamoun’s refusal to break off ties with France and Great Britain, and grew more acute in the domestic arena two years later, following the proclamation of the United Arab Republic. Lebanese–Saudi relations worsened further as Chamoun’s successor, Gen. Fouad Chehab, pursued a policy of openness to Cairo.

“In the 1960s, this confrontation was gradually expressed in the media: The newspapers and magazines were in favor of one camp or another, while Lebanon served as a platform of freedom that everyone exploited,” former Prime Minister Tammam Salam told L’Orient-Le Jour.

The Saudi kingdom carried on with its dazzling rise at the time, exploiting its oil resources and enjoying US support.

As for Lebanon, it was perceived as a gateway to the West, owing to both its geographic location and its cultural and social fabric, drawing intellectuals and notables from across the region.

“Many Saudis, and other Gulf Arabs, slowly but surely forged links and developed strong bonds with Lebanon, considering the country a destination for education, holidays or even investments, thanks to its banking and financial sector,” Haykel said.

Members of Gulf royal families walked down the prestigious corridors of Broummana High School, the International School of Choueifat and even the American University of Beirut, while the heights of Aley and Bhamdoun were their leading holiday destinations. The love for Lebanon was passed down from generation to generation. “King Abdulaziz openly and publicly told his sons, ‘Lebanon is your second homeland,’” the journalist Mounir Hafi recounted in his 2008 Arabic-language book, Saudi Arabia for Lebanon.

Since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia has been the primary donor to the Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association of Beirut, which former Prime Minister Saeb Salam chaired until 1982. “The Saudis helped my father a lot within the framework of the association, and that strengthened the links between the two of them,” Tammam Salam said.

“The Saudis not only supported the Sunni community, which was their traditional ally. They also had good relations with the Christians and Shiites,” the Arab diplomat said.

Nasserism’s gradual decline in the wake of Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Egyptian troops’ eventual withdrawal from northern Yemen during the civil war there, while Saudi Arabia backed the loyalist forces, created a new regional dynamic.

“As this bipolarity between Riyadh and Cairo dwindled, the two poles stopped perceiving Lebanon as a battlefield,” the Arab diplomat said.

Very limited capabilities

While these developments helped improve Lebanese–Saudi relations, the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975, opened a new page.

The confrontation between Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization forces, led by Yasser Arafat, was imported into Lebanon. Subsequently, regional powers stepped into the conflict. Throughout the 15-year war, Saudi Arabia reiterated the call for national unity as it increased diplomatic contacts.

“The Saudi leaders had very limited capabilities, given the tremendous influence that Syria and Israel wielded in Lebanon. They were against the PLO’s actions and in favor of Syrian intervention, hoping that it would restore stability in the country,” Haykel said.

“During the war, what the Saudis were able to do was pump financial power and influence. That’s what they did, mainly through Rafik Hariri, once he built strong relations with them,” Haykel said.

Hariri, a businessman who hailed from Saida, had resided in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1960s, where he made a fortune in the construction and public works sector. Hariri forged close ties with King Fahd and obtained Saudi citizenship, which is extremely rare.

Eager for stability during the war, the Lebanese opted for Saudi Arabia as a country of refuge, where they were offered many privileges, particularly when it came to employment. Consequently, the number of Lebanese in Saudi Arabia skyrocketed from an estimated 25,000 before 1975 to about 127,000 in the 1980s.

At the same time, Rafic Hariri significantly increased philanthropic activities in Lebanon, including scholarship offers, and became the envoy of Saudi Arabia to the land of the cedars, enforcing a cease-fire and leading the peace talks as a de facto representative of Saudi Arabia.

“This relationship was interpreted in two different ways: The harsh critics of Harirism underscore that he served the interests of Saudi Arabia, while his friends emphasize that he was a Lebanese patriot who judiciously used his friendship with the Saudis to the advantage of his country. In fact, he combined the two,” the Arab diplomat said.

The Lebanese deputies who had won the elections of 1972 met in Saudi Arabia, where they signed, in October 1989, the Taif Accord, which recrafted political power sharing in the country to the Sunnis’ advantage and to the Christians’ detriment.

“For the Saudis, this peace agreement was of a personal importance, and they needed to endorse it: They are the ones who put an end to the 15-year conflict by utilizing their political and financial capital,” says Randa Slim, a researcher at the Middle East Institute.

“The Saudis felt responsible for the new Lebanese order after the Taif Accord, but the Syrians were in control of the situation on the ground,” the Arab diplomat said.

Damascus’ political and security stranglehold on the Lebanese state apparatus, which was made official in the peace accord, stretched over the next 15 years. It was a period of joint Syrian-Saudi dominance based on their mutual need for each other, but each had a separate agenda.

Billions on the table

Despite the essential role assumed by its protégé, Rafik Hariri, Saudi Arabia — the main donor for the reconstruction of an indebted country in ruin — had little leeway for political maneuvering and found a modus vivendi with Damascus.

Hariri took office as Lebanon’s prime minister in 1992, set up a controversial economic recovery and reconstruction plan and paved the way for investments from the Gulf. His critics perceived this plan as a means of allowing Saudi Arabia to promote the interests of the Sunni camp in the country. He was subsequently accused of seeking to alter the face of the country to fulfill the Gulf tourists’ desires.

Donor conferences that were organized by Paris and saved Lebanon from bankruptcy twice, in 2001 and 2002, were marked by a huge Saudi contribution. A pledge of $700 million in aid placed Riyadh at the top of the list of donors at the Paris II conference.

Lebanon’s dependence on the Gulf countries was further consolidated on the heels of waves of migration by Lebanese who wanted to try their luck in the Arabian Peninsula. A United Nations report in 2006 indicated that remittances from Lebanese expats in the Gulf countries accounted for 10-15 percent of the country’s GDP from 1990 to 2004.

Rafic Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, blamed on Hezbollah and Damascus, was a turning point in the relations between Beirut and Riyadh, which had lost its number one driver of influence in Lebanon. Saad Hariri succeeded his father, but relations with Saudi Arabia were no longer the same.

“The inherited friendships are not as strong as the built ones,” the Arab diplomat said.

While the Syrian troops subsequently withdrew, the Saudi–Iran rivalry was manifested in Lebanon as Hezbollah rose to power. Lebanon’s political landscape was divided between the anti-Syrian March 14 and the pro-Syria March 8 camps, and the Shiite party’s influence was bolstered — mainly when the Mar Mikhael Understanding was signed in February 2006, with the Free Patriotic Movement aiming to bring Michel Aoun to the Lebanese presidency and granting Hezbollah a Christian cover.

The war fought against Israel that summer further solidified the latter’s power. While Saudi Arabia opposed Syrian interference, it condemned Hezbollah’s “venture” and its repercussions for Lebanon.

“The Saudis continued to hold on to Lebanon under the reign of King Abdullah. He was ready to spend money for the very purpose of maintaining the Saudi influence there at any cost,” Haykel said.

In 2006, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait deposited a total of $1.5 billion into Lebanon’s central bank to prop up the lira, and King Abdullah announced that Saudi Arabia would cover registration fees for all the Lebanese students in public schools for that academic year. A year later, Riyadh pledged more than $1 billion in aid to Lebanon at a donor meeting chaired by then French President Jacques Chirac.

A couple of years later, Saudi Arabia found itself in a diplomatic competition with Qatar in the regional arena. The United Arab Emirates took the lead in resolving the political crisis between the March 8 and March 14 camps. While the Lebanese National Dialogue Conference — which was held in Doha in 2008 to put an end to the unprecedented political and institutional crisis in Lebanon — kicked off a process that would bring Beirut and Damascus closer, Riyadh counted on a policy of openness, encouraging Saad Hariri to sign a final agreement and depositing another $1 billion into the central bank.

“On the sidelines of the 2008 Arab League summit in Riyadh, King Abdullah gave us a long sermon — it was more like an indisputable truth — on the need for the Lebanese to find common ground,” the diplomat said. “Saudi Arabia strongly believes that Lebanon’s diversity must be preserved,” he said.

Caught in the pincers of the conflict between the Saudi-Emirati axis on the one hand and the Iranian axis on the other hand, the Lebanese paid the cost of the worsening relations between Beirut and the Gulf, which strongly disapproves of Hezbollah’s influence on the country’s affairs. In 2009 and the years that followed, the Gulf expelled hundreds of Shiite Lebanese overnight or denied them entry visas in light of the geopolitical developments, invoking “security” considerations.

In the wake of the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict and support for protests in Bahrain sped up the downturn in relations between Beirut and Riyadh — and more generally the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The brief sequestration of Saad Hariri

King Salman’s ascent to the throne in 2015 and the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, before he became the crown prince in 2018, finalized the shift in the Saudi approach toward Beirut.

“The close relations the king and Hariri family shared came to an end with MBS’ rise to power,” Slim said.

While then Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was heading Lebanese diplomacy, Riyadh suspended its $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese Army, after Lebanon refused to agree to a joint statement by the Arab League unanimously condemning as “hostile” the Iranian attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in January 2016. Soon after, the UAE and Saudi Arabia banned their citizens from visiting Lebanon, and the Arab League labeled Hezbollah a terrorist group, despite reservations from Lebanon and Iraq.

The Saudi disapproval of Hezbollah’s stranglehold on the Lebanese government under the tenure of President Michel Aoun prompted Riyadh to step its pressure up a gear in 2017.

A year after Saad Hariri returned to the premiership, he was forced to quit while in Saudi Arabia, where he was sequestered. Paris urgently stepped in as mediator. Holding hostage the prime minister of an ally country that was even treated as a little brother cast a grave shadow over relations between the two countries.

The tour de force came to nothing: Saad Hariri made a strong comeback to Lebanon, backed by Aoun and Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, Lebanon paid top dollar for the Saudi defeat: Saudi Arabia decided to turn its back on Lebanon.

“The Saudi elites slowly but surely realized that no matter what Saudi Arabia does, its influence in Lebanon will always be limited. The great deal of money spent and squandered generated a very modest return on investment,” Haykel said.

Relations with Beirut have long been closely associated with those shared by Lebanese and Gulf officials at the personal level. However, the arrival of a new generation of leaders in the Arabian Peninsula, including Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed and MBS, represented a rupture.

MBS’ growing influence also coincides with Riyadh’s stated desire to concentrate on national priorities and set up mega-economic diversification projects.

“This new generation handles politics from an economic and financial standpoint, and it is very pragmatic in shaping its foreign policy,” Slim said.

Saudi Arabia shifted from a monarchy seeking to gain recognition into a nationalist and interventionist power. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s repeated animadversion on Saudi Arabia and fighters it has sent to Yemen have further fueled tension. Nasrallah welcomed, in September 2019 the attacks on Saudi Aramco’s oil installations, which were attributed to the Houthis, and warned that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be “destroyed” in case of a war with Iran.

Two months earlier, former prime ministers Fouad Siniora, Tammam Salam and Nagib Mikati were received by King Salman, with whom they discussed Lebanon’s political and economic crises.

“That was almost the last time we cultivated these relations. Since then, we have been in a somewhat static situation,” Salam said.

The shift in the approach contributed to putting wealthy Gulf tourists to flight and dealt a harsh blow to Lebanon’s tourism. The Saudi import ban on Lebanese products on April 25, after the Saudi authorities seized more than 5 million Captagon pills hidden in a shipment of pomegranates coming from Beirut, is the most recent example of the collapsed relations.

For Lebanon, it has become crystal clear that its older Saudi brother wishes him nothing more than good will.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

A large black Mercedes threaded its way through a crowd on Hamra’s main street on June 27, 1997, as security services cordoned off Beirut. Then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was behind the steering wheel, all smiles under flashes of cameras and petals that were scattered everywhere.Then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was in the front passenger seat. Having visited Cairo and Damascus,...