Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry asked all Saudi citizens visiting and living in Lebanon to leave the country as soon as possible on Thursday, additionally advising Saudi nationals not to travel to Lebanon from other countries.
Some other media outlets interpreted the Foreign Ministry’s message as not a “request” but an order that must be carried out with urgency. The Associated Press, for example, reported it as “Saudi Arabia orders its citizens out of Lebanon ‘immediately.’” However the verbiage is interpreted, it is clearly an ominous sign of growing conflict with Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
In a CNBC interview broadcast on Thursday morning, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was asked if Saudi Arabia is “headed for a direct conflict with Iran.”
“We hope not,” Jubeir replied. He went on to restate Saudi Arabia’s charge that the missile fired at Riyadh from Yemen over the weekend was built by Iran, supplied to the Houthi insurgents of Yemen in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
France announced on Thursday that it was taking these allegations, which have also been made by the Trump White House, “seriously” and considered Iranian compliance with U.N. resolutions to be of the “utmost importance.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after a Security Council meeting on October 31 that his country has “deep disagreements with Iran” on ballistic missiles and Iran’s efforts to “create a direct channel to the Mediterranean” through its proxies. This is an interesting development in light of the conventional wisdom that Europe will do just about anything to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive because it plans to do a lot of business with post-sanctions Iran.
In his CNBC interview, the Saudi foreign minister addressed the situation in Lebanon, which he called “unfortunate.”
“It is a result of Hezbollah’s activities supported by Iran,” he charged. “Hezbollah continues to maintain its militia even though it should hand over its weapons. There can be no militia outside the scope of government institutions.”
“Hezbollah has put roadblocks in front of every initiative that Prime Minister Hariri tried to implement,” he continued:
Hezbollah pretty much hijacked the Lebanese system and Hezbollah has been the instrument that Iran uses to dominate Lebanon. The instrument that Iran uses to interfere in Syria with Hamas and with the Houthis. And so we see Hezbollah’s mischief all over the region. Hezbollah has been responsible for smuggling weapons into Bahrain. Hezbollah is involved in criminal activities such as drug dealing and money laundering.
Jubeir would not say whether Saudi Arabia would take direct action against Hezbollah or sever diplomatic ties with Lebanon, but he called on the world community to clearly designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, without any fine distinctions between its “political” and “military” wings.
“We cannot allow Lebanon to be a platform from which harm comes to Saudi Arabia,” he declared. “The Lebanese people are innocent. The Lebanese people have been dominated by Hezbollah and we need to find a way to help the Lebanese people come out from under the thumb of Hezbollah.”
Al-Jazeera reported that Lebanese President Michel Aoun “would soon call for assistance from the international community, the Arab League, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia” to uncover the full story behind Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s sudden resignation during a trip to Saudi Arabia last weekend.
Lebanese officials say they have not received Hariri’s resignation papers yet, so he is still technically the prime minister, and essentially accused Saudi Arabia of kidnapping him.
The Saudis insist Hariri is not under arrest. He stated during his resignation announcement that he feared for his life, accused Iran of seeking to destabilize the country, and said Hezbollah has “managed to impose a fait accompli on Lebanon through the power of its weapons.” Presumably, the Lebanese who think the Saudis imprisoned him believe this statement was made under some duress.
NPR correspondent Ruth Sherlock observed that a Saudi travel ban on Lebanon is “terrible news” for the country because it relies so heavily on Gulf tourism, an industry just beginning to recover from the Syrian civil war. This would become an even bigger problem if more of Saudi Arabia’s allies also restrict travel to Lebanon. Bahrain ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon last week, while Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia in asking its citizens to leave the country on Thursday afternoon.
On the other hand, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a vital Saudi ally, said on Wednesday that he was opposed to hostilities with Iran and Hezbollah.
“Our point of view when it comes to new troubles with either Iran or Hezbollah or any other issue is that we have to deal with great care so as not to add to the challenges and troubles of the region. I am against war,” Sisi said.
“We call for not increasing tensions in the region, but not at the expense of Arab and Gulf national security,” he added, a clear warning to Iran not to jeopardize the security of Sunni nations. Sisi also expressed support for Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption initiative and said he has “confidence in the kingdom’s leadership.”