Journal Essay

Saudi Arabia Calls Out Hezbollah: Why Now?

Matteo Legrenzi and Fred H. Lawson

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Dr. Legrenzi is an associate professor at Ca' Foscari University of Venice and author of The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf. Dr. Lawson is a professor of government at Mills College and author of Global Security Watch — Syria.

On March 2, 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) posted on its official website a scathing condemnation of the Lebanese Islamist movement the Party of God (Hezbollah), accusing it of carrying out "hostile acts" in the six GCC member-states and engaging in campaigns of "terror and incitement" in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The pronouncement was attributed to GCC Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayyani, but was widely acknowledged to have been issued at the instigation of the organization's most influential member, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Three days earlier, the Saudi-owned MBC television network in Lebanon broadcast a comedy program that lampooned Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, and depicted him as nothing but a stooge of the Islamic Republic of Iran.1 Nasrullah replied on March 1 with a vituperative public riposte, in which he charged that the Saudi government was interferring in domestic politics all across the Middle East, most notably in Lebanon.

Nasrullah's accusation came in the wake of Riyadh's decision 10 days earlier to cancel a $4 billion grant to fund the purchase of arms and equipment for the Lebanese armed forces and security services. An anonymous official in the Saudi foreign ministry told reporters that the cancellation was the direct consequence of "Lebanon's positions [on regional affairs], which are not in harmony with the brotherly ties linking [Lebanon and Saudi Arabia]," as well as Hezbollah's "political and media campaigns" against the kingdom and the party's ongoing "terrorist acts" in neighboring countries.2 Riyadh's abrupt turnaround caught the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam by surprise and left pro-Saudi actors inside Lebanon uncertain what course of action to pursue next.3

Informed observers attributed Riyadh's sudden burst of belligerence toward Hezbollah to four primary causes: Beirut's unwillingness to join other Arab capitals in blaming the Iranian authorities for a January 2016 attack on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad, the Saudi state's sharp drop in income in the wake of the collapse of global oil prices, the Lebanese authorities' refusal to release a member of the Saudi ruling family taken into custody at Beirut airport in October 2015 with two tons of amphetamines in his private aircraft, and Hezbollah's growing power in Lebanon's domestic politics.4

These developments cast a pall over Saudi-Lebanese relations, yet they fail to explain Riyadh's extraordinary step of labeling Hezbollah a threat to the security of the Gulf — such a grave danger that the kingdom severely punished the Lebanese government for its failure to curtail the organization's activities. The Saudi leadership's decision to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization can more usefully be interpreted as a response to three more immediate trends: a marked convergence of external security threats, a notable weakening of Saudi clients in the Lebanese political arena, and a resurgence of internal challenges to the Saudi regime. The conjunction of these factors compelled Riyadh to take forceful steps to undercut the party's burgeoning power and prestige as a regional actor.

THREATS FROM YEMEN, IRAN AND IRAQ

By the winter of 2015-16, Riyadh confronted a broad range of external threats to its basic security interests. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen could boast few if any successes on the battlefield. At the same time, the Islamic Republic of Iran accelerated its ballistic-missile program and pointed to Saudi Arabia as a potential target for the next generation of intermediate-range weapons. Moreover, the kingdom faced a rising danger from the northwest, as paramilitary forces that had mobilized inside Iraq to block the advance of the Islamic State (al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah) became increasingly active along the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border.

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