Saudi Friendship Comes at a Cost

5 MINS READFeb 24, 2016 | 02:34 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Saudi Arabia's friendship comes at a cost — and the cost appears to be rising. Yesterday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, during which they discussed Riyadh's concerns over instability in places such as Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Libya and Syria. Talks ended with a gift of $5 billion of Saudi military aid that was originally earmarked for Lebanon but was instead given to Sudan. The swift diversion of aid underscores Saudi Arabia's desire to make sure its checkbook diplomacy is yielding the desired results.

During the reign of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has accelerated its efforts to buy allies; the developing U.S.-Iranian relationship last year spooked Saudi Arabia into swifter action in solidifying and identifying its friends in the Middle East. The passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last summer further convinced Saudi Arabia that it was being alienated from once-stalwart partners like the United States and set the stage for geopolitical competition with Iran, its largest regional rival. The diplomatic rift following the Saudi Embassy attacks in Tehran this January only aggravated long-standing economic, military and religious competition between these two Middle Eastern powers.

In response to the perceived threat, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman has marshaled Sunni allies to Riyadh's side to help the kingdom fight its proxy battles in the region. Allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Sudan are expected to offer military support to Saudi Arabia in exchange for generous Saudi grants, loans and investment. And it appears as though they are meeting those expectations: Saudi Arabia has received verbal support from nearly all the nations in its 34-country anti-terrorism alliance. In fact, more than 20 members of that alliance have participated in Saudi-led military exercises, including "Northern Thunder," the largest exercise of its kind.

But such military games in the desert and the enduring wars in Yemen and Syria have cost the kingdom dearly, as have low oil prices. Saudi Arabia posted its largest budget deficit ever in December ($98 billion), and as the kingdom tries to lower its foreign expenses, it has discovered that some countries are cheaper than others. Riyadh is eager to secure the allies it can afford and cut off those it cannot.

Lebanon is one such country, for its history has made it wary of external influence. In 1976, during the Lebanese civil war, Syria and Iran began to gradually add more Shiite personnel to the Lebanese armed forces, diluting the Maronite Christian influence imposed on Lebanon during the French mandate and leaving Lebanon's armed forces riven with different sects and conflicting loyalties. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, emerged from this competition as one of the strongest factions — militarily, economically and politically — in the country. Saudi Arabia became concerned that Hezbollah had grown too powerful, so it pledged to give $4 billion to the Lebanese military in 2014 but only on the condition that Sunni politicians disburse it in such a way as to contain Hezbollah. 

But Riyadh may have underestimated Lebanon's reliance on Hezbollah. Indeed, many of the politicians the group supports often oppose Saudi policies. In January, for example, the Lebanese foreign minister refused — quite publicly, in fact — to officially condemn the Saudi Embassy attacks. No amount of Saudi money can weaken Hezbollah's influence when Lebanon is as fractured and weak as it is now.

Sudan, however, is in a much better position to bend to Saudi Arabia's will. The two countries have steadily warmed their relations over the past few years, and through a combination of Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli pressure (and money), Sudan has eased its dependence on Iranian aid. Unencumbered by the kinds of internal struggles that beset Lebanon, Sudan is a willing recipient of Saudi Arabia's money and an eager agent of its bidding. The government in Khartoum expelled Iran's cultural attache — an act Riyadh appears to appreciate — and deployed ground forces to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

But even though Saudi Arabia made a show of giving Sudan earmarked money, the kingdom can still court Lebanon if it wants to. And it may soon get its chance as the Lebanese prime minister begins his emergency gulf tour. Politics aside, Lebanese leaders know their country desperately needs external aid. But the Saudi leaders know as much, too, and they hope Lebanon's financial difficulties will persuade its leaders to withdraw their support in exchange for Saudi money.

The true test of how much loyalty money can buy will be the Syria coalition. Allies like Pakistan and Egypt have sworn to defend Saudi Arabia in the event it is attacked, but they have been hesitant to commit ground troops to any potential Saudi military operation outside the gulf. As Saudi Arabia tries to gauge its role in the Syria conflict, which now appears as interminable as ever, it wants as many allies like Sudan around as possible, even as it arguably holds unrealistic expectations for Lebanon.

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