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How Riyadh orchestrated its own downfall in Lebanon

Saudi Arabia's policy shift toward Lebanon in trying to curb Hezbollah's power has failed miserably and made Saad Hariri the most popular Lebanese leader.
A poster depicting Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned as Lebanon's prime minister is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi - RC1AA8425E00
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The latest Saudi ultimatum to Lebanon, after the baffling resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is reminiscent of a similar development half a century ago. In February 1967, Riyadh warned Beirut to remain neutral in the kingdom's tug of war with Cairo over Yemen and threatened to evict Lebanese expatriates and withdraw Saudi cash deposits from Lebanese banks. The Saudis' pressure united Lebanese politicians, and Riyadh never followed through on its threats. Looking back at 65 years of engagement, Saudi Arabia has never had a Lebanon strategy. Several factors — most notably the geographical distance from Lebanon, the lack of a powerful or armed Lebanese ally and the lack of coerciveness and purpose —have hindered its ability to develop an effective policy.

To the Lebanese, Saudi Arabia always came second to Egypt, Israel, Syria and now Iran. In the 1970s, Riyadh pursued two contradictory goals in Lebanon: endorsing Palestinian resistance against Israel and supporting a strong Lebanese state. In the 1990s, Riyadh reached its maximum influence by empowering the Syrian regime's control over Lebanon in return for expanding the powers of the Sunni prime minister and containing Hezbollah. This influence, however, was restricted to economic affairs, while Damascus handled politics and security, which left Lebanon's economy increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia.

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