After an extended political crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon that was sparked by a Lebanese official’s negative comments on the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the two countries began to mend their relationship last week following the return of Saudi ambassador Waleed Bukhari to Beirut.
On Monday night, within days of his return, the Saudi envoy held an iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking) dinner for Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, agriculture minister Abbas Hajj-Hassan, and the American, British, French, and German ambassadors to Lebanon. After the meeting, Bukhari indicated that Saudi Arabia would resume providing foreign aid to Lebanon, which is intended to offset the country’s catastrophic economic conditions. The French ambassador also indicated that aid from Paris would continue.
Mikati also announced that he would visit Riyadh in the coming month, a certain sign of improving ties.
Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have historically had a close economic relationship, and many Lebanese citizens work within Saudi Arabia in a variety of industries. Several of Lebanon’s most prominent political and business leaders, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, earned their fortunes by working in Riyadh.
However, Riyadh has voiced increasing concerns with Beirut’s leadership over the past decade, most notably criticizing Hezbollah, the militia-turned-political party in Lebanon that functions as a de facto client force of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary. Hezbollah has refused to disarm its military wing, which is by most estimates stronger than the actual Lebanese military and has stockpiled tens of thousands of medium- and long-range missiles. It has also been implicated in major drug-smuggling operations, helping to transport millions of “Captagon” amphetamine pills from drug laboratories in Syria, an Iranian ally, to the rich Arab Gulf states.
The Saudi-Lebanese crisis came to a head in the fall of 2021, after former Information Minister George Kordahi was revealed to have harshly criticized Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and accused Riyadh of committing war crimes. Although the remarks had been made prior to Kordahi’s appointment, Riyadh broke off diplomatic and economic relations with Beirut and refused to restore them after Kordahi resigned from office.
While Saudi-Lebanese ties are once again improving, Western and Arab observers have pointed out that Hezbollah’s influence within Lebanon remains strong, creating a major hurdle to the future of the relationship.
It is also unclear how Saudi Arabia’s relations with Lebanon will affect those of the other Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which continue to participate in the Saudi-led coalition and also withdrew their ambassadors from Beirut, have not yet restored them, although Kuwait, a third participant, has.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.