BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri on Monday urged Saudi Arabia not to abandon Lebanon after it halted aid to the army, reflecting concerns that Riyadh is reducing support for a country that has been an arena for its struggle with Iran.
Hariri’s direct appeal to King Salman reflects worries among Saudi Arabia’s allies in Lebanon that a major shift is under way in its policy toward the country. Riyadh’s backing has been crucial to the decade-long struggle waged by Hariri and his allies against the Iranian-backed Shi‘ite group Hezbollah.
The crisis came to a head last week when Saudi Arabia decided to suspend its aid to the army in response to the Lebanese government’s failure to sign up to statements condemning attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
Reflecting deep differences among rival Lebanese politicians, a government statement issued after a meeting of the national unity cabinet on Monday also fell short of condemning them. Instead, it was left to Prime Minister Tammam Salam to condemn them himself after reading the declaration.
Hariri, who heads the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance, said Lebanon would “not be a protectorate for Iranian policies in the region”.
“We are here to confirm in the loudest voice that nobody will be able to cancel Lebanon’s Arabness,” he said, making only his third visit to the country since the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 alliance toppled his government in 2011.
He urged King Salman and other Gulf Arab leaders “not to abandon Lebanon and to continue to support and embrace it”.
Hezbollah, a political party with a powerful militia, has grown in strength over the last decade. Its fighters are playing a crucial role fighting on President Bashar al-Assad’s side in the war in neighboring Syria, one of the major arenas of Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region.
Many Lebanese are worried about how Saudi policy will affect the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese employed in Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states allied to it. The money they send home is crucial to the Lebanese economy.
Saudi Arabia pledged the aid for the Lebanese army in 2013 in what then-Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called the largest grant ever to the country’s armed forces. The army, carefully balanced to reflect Lebanon’s sectarian make-up, is widely seen as the backbone of the weak Lebanese state.
Saudi anger at the Lebanese government appeared to come to a head last month when the government, represented by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, refused to vote on a joint Arab statement condemning the attacks on Saudi missions in Iran by crowds protesting at the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shi‘ite Muslim cleric.
Bassil, a political ally of Hezbollah, cited the statement’s criticism of Hezbollah as the reason for not backing it. He stressed the need for national unity in Lebanon.
The government statement issued on Monday said it was necessary to “fix relations between Lebanon and its brothers, and to remove any flaws that may have emerged in recent times”.
It said Prime Minister Salam should make contacts with Gulf states that would “pave the way for a Gulf tour ... with this aim”.
The statement said Lebanon would not forget Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the peace agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, its role in rebuilding the country, and its support for Lebanon’s “financial, economic, military and security institutions”.
“Likewise it will not forget that the kingdom, and the rest of the Gulf Arab states ... embraced and continue to (embrace) hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all sects”, the statement said.
Hezbollah member Mohammed Fneish, a minister of state in the government, said when asked whether the group supported sending a ministerial delegation to apologize to Saudi Arabia: “When Saudi apologizes for its insults to us, we will think”.
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Trevelyan