BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hezbollah indicated there would be no apology to Saudi Arabia over Lebanon’s decision not to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, signaling no quick end to a crisis seen as a risk to Lebanese economic and political stability.
The Lebanese central bank governor in an interview with Reuters meanwhile urged the government to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, but said reports on potential financial repercussions of the crisis were overblown and there was no risk to the currency.
The crisis came to a head last week when Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army in response to the government’s failure to sign up to statements condemning attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
The row reflects the wider conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon has been an arena for that struggle for the last decade during which Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese allies have struggled to confront the growing power of Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have urged citizens against travel to Beirut. Many in Lebanon fear repercussions for the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese employed in the Gulf, while the crisis is also exacerbating Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions.
“What happened in the last week from Saudi requires Saudi to apologize to Lebanon, because it insulted Lebanese,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, the Hezbollah deputy leader, said in a speech during a religious occasion in Beirut. “Lebanon will not be a Saudi emirate, or an emirate for anyone else,” he said.
Hezbollah is part of a Lebanese unity government that includes Saudi-allied politicians but is hamstrung by divisions. The government this week issued a statement that fell short of condemning last month’s attacks on Saudi missions by Iranians who were angered by the execution of a Shi‘ite cleric.
Saudi Arabia is demanding an apology from the government.
Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri on Monday urged King Salman not to abandon Lebanon, reflecting unease among Saudi allies who seem to have been caught off guard by the decision.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a member of Hariri’s Future Movement, said on Thursday he thought it was necessary to suspend “for a time” regular Future-Hezbollah meetings that have been credited with containing Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions in Lebanon.
The Future-Hezbollah meetings are a rare example of Sunni-Shi‘ite dialogue in the Middle East as rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran fuels wars in Syria and Yemen.
Even with regional upheaval, Lebanon has so far avoided the kind of all-out war underway in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad against Saudi-backed rebels.
Hariri accused Hezbollah on Thursday of “acting freely in all Arab countries”, saying this risked “an unprecedented catastrophe for the country and the Lebanese”.
“The Saudi offensive pressure against positions of Iranian influence in the region has reached Lebanon,” said Nabil Bou Monsef, a commentator at Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper.
The central bank governor said he hoped the government would get “its act together to reestablish good relations with Saudi Arabia, as Lebanon has always been an economic partner with the kingdom”.
Riad Salameh told Reuters he had not been informed of any measures by Saudi Arabia targeting the Lebanese financial sector or expatriates in Saudi Arabia, saying he thought Saudi statements were “not aggressive to the Lebanese people”.
Media reports about the size of Saudi deposits at the central bank were inflated, he said, and neither Saudi Arabia nor other Gulf Arab states had been in touch about them.
“I think the market has been misinformed, figures have been largely inflated,” Salameh said.
“Besides all these stories circulating that are not substantiated by Saudi official positions ... I have not been informed officially, of any measure - coming or happening - concerning the financial sector,” Salameh said.
“There is no risk on the Lebanese pound” and the central bank and Lebanese commercial banks had “the means ... to secure the stability of the Lebanese pound”, he said. The pound is pegged near 1,507.5 to the U.S. dollar.
Saudi Arabia said on Friday it had blacklisted four companies and three Lebanese men for having links to Hezbollah.
Yemen’s Gulf-backed government also this week accused Hezbollah of training Houthi forces, fighting alongside them, and planning attacks in Saudi Arabia. Iran and Hezbollah reject accusations they have provided military aid to the Houthis.
Reporting by Tom Perry/Laila Bassam; Editing by Dominic Evans