US-Saudi differences push Lebanon to the brink
Uncertainty is growing in Lebanon as the US reportedly issued a warning to its local allies about siding with Saudi Arabia behind Washington's back
By News Desk - March 21 2023

File (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Lebanon entered a new stage of calamity on 20 March, as the Lebanese lira see-sawed between 110,000 LBP and 140,000 LBP per US dollar, worker associations launched strikes across the country, and large protests that started in the northern city of Tripoli began to spread to the capital Beirut in response to rising fuel prices, medicine shortages, and inaction from the political class.

In the late afternoon, the lira exchange rate stabilized after Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh announced that the institution would sell unlimited amounts of US dollars.

Arabic media reports suggest Tuesday’s chaotic developments are a result of a tug-of-war happening behind closed doors between Lebanon’s largest foreign aid donors – Saudi Arabia and the US that was sparked by the Iran-Saudi rapprochement deal brokered by China.

According to diplomatic sources that spoke with Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, any move from the kingdom in Lebanon without previous coordination with Washington will put to the test the loyalties of western allies – including political leaders Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt, and several ‘independent’ members of parliament.

The report highlights that a long-anticipated IMF loan and the start of gas extraction from an offshore field are deals that will only move forward with US, not Saudi, help. On top of this, the diplomatic sources stressed that, while the White House “trusts the Saudis with some interests in the region,” these cannot be “jeopardized” without expecting an “appropriate” US response.

As the rift between the historic allies deepens, the director of the Middle East office at the British Foreign Ministry was reportedly told by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan that the deal announced in Beijing is “the beginning of a [Saudi-Iran rapprochement] process and not the culmination of an agreement on contentious matters.”

The kingdom’s top diplomat also stressed to the British official that priorities between Riyadh and Tehran differ at this stage in the talks, with the kingdom placing an emphasis on “Yemen and regional affairs,” while the Islamic Republic is focused on “opening embassies and Hajj visas.”

Bin Farhan’s statements coincided with a report from Kuwaiti news outlet Al Jaridai which revealed that a delegation from Oman has been visiting Lebanon in recent weeks for discussion with Hezbollah officials over “the need for the party to withdraw from Yemen and not to interfere there.”

The Kuwaiti news outlet also revealed that an official Qatari delegation visited Lebanon in recent days to meet with several officials and parliamentary blocs to “discuss means to exit the Lebanese crisis and offer the necessary assistance to end the presidential vacuum” and to lay the groundwork for a possible Saudi-Qatari announcement on Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly also looking to hold a new round of talks with France over the crisis in Lebanon.

Since 2019, Lebanon witnessed the collapse of its institutions following decades of corruption and mismanagement by the financial sector. The crisis plunged over 80 percent of the population below the poverty line.

Despite the urgency of the situation, Lebanon’s political class has failed to take any action to help its citizens. Since last October’s elections, the country has been under the control of a caretaker government with no president, as rival alliances in parliament refuse to compromise on a candidate.

Last November, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, warned that the situation in Lebanon is open to all possible negative outcomes, including a “complete disintegration of the state and the collapse of its security forces.”

She said that the Lebanese will likely have to endure more pain before forming a new government, adding that collapse will enable Lebanon “somehow to be rebuilt from the ashes, freed from the curse of Hezbollah.”

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