Saudi Arabia turns on Lebanon amid fears of a regional crisis
Saudi Arabia has called on its citizens to leave Lebanon “as soon as possible”, followed by other Gulf states. Fighting between Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh have renewed concerns in the Arab world, as fears of violence grow. This mirrors a cooling in Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – After months marked by a certain diplomatic flexibility, Saudi Arabia last Friday called on its citizens to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible" in what looks very much like a hardening in its position towards the country. Soon after, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and even Oman followed Saudi Arabia's lead.
Amid these ominous signs, fierce fighting is raging in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, raising fears that the violence might spread to other Palestinian camps.
The Lebanese fear the ripple effect of travel advisories by Gulf states on other countries. Although few tourists from the Gulf might be affected since many travel restrictions to Lebanon are still in place, they put at risk a particularly good season this year.
Chaired by Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, Lebanon’s Central Security Council held an emergency meeting on Monday in which all members agreed that the action by Gulf states were unwarranted.
On Monday, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari confirmed what everyone thought, namely that the advisories were caused by events in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, near Saïda (Sidon) where, Palestinian groups clashed for five days last week after a top Fatah official, Abu Ashraf Al-Armoushi, and four of his bodyguards, were murdered.
The fighting that ensued left 12 people dead and more than 60 wounded, forcing some of the residents of the overcrowded[i] camp to flee their homes.
The clashes have been contained thanks to urgent appeals from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but also thanks too, it must be said, to the resolve of Lebanese troops, who sealed off the camp and secured the southern highway.
If the advisories from Gulf states took Lebanese leaders by surprise, it is because they were poorly timed, coming after calm had been restored in the camps. For some Lebanese leaders, it was just a misstep.
Yet, some observers still believe that stepping back is still justified. While fighting might have stopped in Ain al-Hilweh, the rivalry between the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Salafi groups has not gone away. And no one involved in al-Armoushi’s murder has been apprehended.
Clashes in the Palestinian camp come at a time when the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is visibly losing steam, everywhere, in Yemen, in Syria where little progress has been made to stop captagon trafficking to the Gulf or promote reforms in exchange for the normalisation of its relations with Riyadh, and finally in Iran, which continues to aggressively export its Islamic revolution to the Arab world, especially in Yemen, Palestine and Lebanon.
Other bones of contention are the disputed al-Durra gas field, renewed US and Israeli activism in the region, the presence of a destroyer and additional F-16 and F-35 fighter jets in the Gulf, and more rumours about Saudi-Israeli normalisation.
In Lebanon some sources close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri are talking about a US plan to stop the overland link between Iran and Lebanon at the Iraqi-Syrian border, thus breaking up the “Shia Crescent”.
It is against this background that we must view the situation in Lebanon, where the presidential election is still deadlocked and the government paralysed, especially because of Hezbollah's demands.
Despite reassuring words from the Interior Minister, all these destabilising factors and external players must be considered in order to understand what is in store for the country.
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[i] About 120,000 people in a three-square kilometre area