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Lebanon, the Latest Battlefield in Iran/Saudi Arabia Rivalry

Travel Warnings issued by Gulf States

Kuwait and Qatar have followed in the footsteps of their Gulf allies and issued a travel warning to their citizens, advising them to avoid visiting Lebanon. Security concerns in the Mediterranean country were cited as the reason for the notice.

Not so, say some analysts. Rather, the diplomatic squabble represents the latest episode in the ongoing grudge match between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A week ago Saudi Arabia announced that it was suspending a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese army and a $1 billion injection into the country’s police force. Most of the money was earmarked for purchasing French weaponry which would have boosted the capabilities of the Lebanese forces.

Subsequently, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) banned their citizens from traveling to Lebanon. Kuwait and Qatar have now added their weight to this boycott.

Behind the dance, politics can is very much at play, Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House, told The Media Line. “The Gulf countries are trying to send a very strong message, first to Lebanon and then to the rest of the region that (Iran’s) meddling is no longer going to be tolerated.”

Many of the Gulf Sunni states feel that Iran’s “bad behavior” – its use of proxy actors to spread its influence around the region – was legitimized by the nuclear deal the country signed with world powers last year, Vakil said. “There’s a feeling that nobody (Europe or America) is doing enough and that the region has to stand up to Iran,” the analyst explained.

Not everyone agrees. There are two main reasons for the travel warnings issued by the Gulf States, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science from the UAE, told The Media Line. First and foremost is the security of Gulf citizens. European governments frequently release travel warnings advising their citizens to avoid certain countries for safety reasons. The Gulf States are simply doing the same thing, Abdulla argued.

Iran’s proxy agent in Lebanon represents the second reason. “Hizbullah is launching a campaign against anything and everything which is Saudi or from the Gulf and this is one response to this kind of hate message,” the professor said. To suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran was the underlying reason would be “bending the facts” since the feud has been running for several years already and the travel ban has only just been announced, he insisted.

The ongoing regional rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers is waged on a number of fronts, Alam Saleh, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at Exeter University, told The Media Line. Economically the price of oil is used as a weapon, militarily proxy battles are waged in Syria, and domestically both states use their opponent’s ethnic minorities as a tool, Saleh said. “They are using all instruments and any means to undermine the other’s interests… Lebanon is another playing field,” the politics lecturer noted.

How you view the implications of the dispute depends on how much power you believe Iran has over Beirut. Lebanon is a country with a diverse sectarian population, split between Christians, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and others. This gives Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran a certain leverage.

For Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Hizbullah is the dominant force in Lebanese politics, a force that answers directly to the Ayatollahs in Tehran, placing Lebanon firmly in Iran’s camp. “Iranian officials have said time and again that they have Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and even Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, under their control,” he concluded.

To suggest Iran controls Lebanon does not correspond to facts on the ground, Sanam Vakil argued. “It’s overly simplistic. There are so many factions working in Lebanon,” she pointed out. The same is true for the extent to which Hizbullah controls the country, an assessment which should not be exaggerated, the Chatham House analyst said. “There are nuanced political forces at work in Lebanon. Hizbullah is only one of the many political actors at work in the country.”

It is the $4 billion military aid package, “the billions being spent on the Lebanese army (in order) to gain influence in Beirut” which is the significant factor here and not the travel warnings, Alam Saleh argued. The fact that Saudi Arabia withdrew this money shows that it has given up trying to ‘buy’ Lebanon, and demonstrates Iran’s ascendency there, the Exeter University academic said.

Iran, he noted, has suggested it will fill the spending gap in the Lebanese military budget. This will increase its sway over Lebanon, beyond Hizbullah’s heartland in the south of the country, as Tehran deepens its influence over the Lebanese military, Saleh concluded.