Saudi Arabia has recently undertaken the mammoth task of rewriting its domestic economic rulebook, but the country's external ambitions are equally as bold. The government in Riyadh has long seen itself as a representative of broader Sunni and Arab interests in the Middle East. Lately, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has amped up attempts to challenge Iran's regional influence, hoping to reassert control over areas that he views as Saudi Arabia's rightful domain. This strategy has manifested on proxy battlegrounds in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and, most recently, in Lebanon. But despite Saudi Arabia's efforts, the kingdom lacks the political and security inroads of its competitor, and it is far more likely to fall flat in Lebanon than it is to successfully curb Iran's influence.
Riyadh has long been concerned about Tehran's links with Lebanese Shiite political party and militant group Hezbollah, which it sees as a tool for Iran to exert power throughout the region. As early as 1990, Saudi Arabia was exploring ways to limit Hezbollah's (and in turn, Iran's) influence in Lebanon, and that concern was subtle but ever-present when Saudi Arabia mediated the Taif agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war. More recently, Saudi Arabia has become uneasy about Iran's increasing role in the Syrian conflict — too close to Lebanon for Riyadh's comfort — and especially Hezbollah's potential to serve as Iran's proxy in Yemen, training and supporting Houthi rebels. A Houthi missile strike over Riyadh on Nov. 5 seemed to suggest to Saudi Arabia that Hezbollah was aiding its enemies in Yemen. And since Riyadh lacks ground troops in Yemen, limiting its ability to respond directly at the launch site, the kingdom has addressed the threat with blockade measures and airstrikes — as well as by putting heavy pressure on Lebanon.
The Pitfalls of Political Meddling
In a televised statement from Riyadh in early November, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation, suggesting that the kingdom is attempting to orchestrate a transition to a Lebanese government that it can better control. After all, when al-Hariri regained his position as prime minister in December 2016, he espoused a desire to compromise with Hezbollah allies. Given that many Lebanese citizens simply want a functioning government, there was widespread support for this stance, which Saudi Arabia is eager to limit. Saudi Arabia seems to be controlling al-Hariri's movements as it searches for a replacement for the post it finds suitable; many believe Saad's brother Bahaa, whom Riyadh believes to be more pliant and willing to take the harder line against Hezbollah that Saudi Arabia craves, is the current top choice.
But it's uncertain whether Bahaa would be able to pursue any actual policy changes, or even whether the fractured Sunni and Christian communities within Lebanon would accept him. Politically, Hezbollah is deeply entrenched in Lebanon, while the Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance has grown more and more anemic over time. The coalition has been divided by disagreements among its Sunni, Druze and Christian member parties, and it was further weakened when the Progressive Socialist Party left in 2011 and the National Liberal Party followed in 2016. Hezbollah, meanwhile, does not rely just on its own party in parliament, the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc. It also maintains a wide range of allies including the Free Patriotic Movement, the Amal Movement and the Marada Movement.
This strategy will ultimately harm Riyadh's own allies in the country, hampering their ability to make political or economic progress.
With its involvement in Lebanese politics, Saudi Arabia seems to be throwing a wrench into the system in an attempt to halt any progress that might be helpful to Hezbollah and its allies. But it is not actually proposing an alternative. This strategy will ultimately harm Riyadh's own allies in the country, hampering their ability to make political or economic progress on issues such as oil and gas contracts and much-needed labor market, tax and subsidy reforms.
A Lack of Proxy Power
Saudi Arabia will also struggle to marshal resistance to Hezbollah as it lacks allied rebel groups — essentially proxy fighters — on the ground to challenge the organization. With Iran's financial and military support, the group has a sizeable militia network in Lebanon boasting transnational capabilities. And Saudi Arabia, for its part, has a poor track record of challenging Iranian-backed militia forces, including in Lebanon. A 2008 conflict within Lebanon that emerged in the aftermath of the 2005 Cedar Revolution pitted Saudi-supported Future Movement fighters against Hezbollah and allied militiamen. The Future Movement ended up ceding territory to the victorious Hezbollah militiamen in a number of strategically significant Beirut neighborhoods. And since 2008, Hezbollah has only become more of an entrenched security presence within Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters have played prominent roles within Syria over the last several years, deepening their military capability to challenge potential Saudi proxies, while Saudi Arabia lacks the allies it needs to pose a serious threat.
When Money Isn't Enough
Saudi Arabia may find some success pressuring Hezbollah in the economic realm, where it has leverage in Lebanon. An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Lebanese work in the kingdom, providing remittances estimated at more than $8 billion that supply hard cash to Lebanon's banking sector. If Riyadh chooses to limit those remittances, it could deliver a major blow to the Lebanese economy. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has the ability to damage Lebanon's crucial tourism industry, which relies heavily on wealthy Arab visitors from Gulf Cooperation Council states. Already, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have issued warnings to their citizens not to travel to Lebanon. Still, even this effort would only be somewhat effective. Lebanon, whose 25-year civil war ended in 1990, already has weathered worse financial damage than any that Saudi Arabia could inflict. Furthermore, the war left the Lebanese weary of another round of civil conflict, especially one driven by outside actors. Finally, Iran is well-equipped to continue financially supporting its Lebanese allies, mitigating the effectiveness of the kingdom's actions.
After stumbling through unrealistic, deeply challenging foreign policy forays in Qatar and Yemen, Saudi Arabia does not seem poised to succeed in strategically influencing Lebanon — no matter how much ambition it may have. And as it attempts to stir up fresh dissent against Hezbollah, Riyadh will struggle to introduce meaningful change rather than just chaos.