Lebanon's Hezbollah scouts carry their parties flag while marching at the funeral of three Hezbollah fighters who were killed in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT/RIYADH - The waspish cartoon in a Saudi-owned newspaper summed up the anger behind Riyadh's decision to cancel billions of dollars in military aid and suspend decades of engagement in Lebanon's fraught politics. "The State of Lebanon: April Fool," it read.
Published on the same day that a Saudi-owned television news channel shut down its Lebanese operations, Friday's cartoon was the latest sign of a falling out which began in January and has become increasingly embittered.
The cartoon's stinging message, that the Lebanese government is a fictitious joke, reflects Saudi Arabia's conviction that the Shi'ite group Hezbollah, backed by Riyadh's regional rival Iran, now pulls the strings in Beirut.
But the Saudi response, cutting $3 billion in military aid and another $1 billion to the security services, appeared self-defeating to many Lebanese - by weakening the army, a counter-balance to Hezbollah, it leaves the Shi'ite group even stronger.
"By default we're abandoning Lebanon to Iran," said a senior European diplomat. "It's a big blow to Lebanon."
It would leave Hezbollah, and by extension the group's backers in Tehran, more dominant than they have ever been in volatile Lebanon, a Middle East banking and trade center that is also home to more than a million Syrian refugees.
The abrupt Saudi action in February was triggered by Lebanon's failure to join other Arab governments in condemning attacks three months ago on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The early release from a Lebanese jail of a former minister, convicted of smuggling explosives in a plot allegedly supported by the Iranian-allied Syrian authorities, suggested to Riyadh that Lebanon's judiciary was also now beholden to its enemies.
Saudi Arabia spearheaded efforts to get Gulf Arab states and the Arab League to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, which led to reports of Lebanese nationals being forced to leave Gulf countries because of alleged Hezbollah links.
Lebanon says it is unable to confirm any expulsions, but politicians in Beirut are taking the reports seriously.
What troubles Saudi Arabia is "a militia that is classified as a terrorist group is now hijacking measures in government," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said last month.
Beyond that, Saudi Arabia believes Hezbollah also projects power - and Iranian influence - well beyond Lebanon's borders.
The group has fought for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's five-year conflict and Riyadh has accused it of intervention as far afield as Yemen on Saudi Arabia's southern border, accusations Hezbollah denies.LEAVING LEBANON
Saudi Arabia's shift signaled a retreat from a long history of powerbroking in Lebanon.
The kingdom hosted peace talks which ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and, in the post-war years when violence largely subsided but rivalries festered, it supported Sunni Muslims and their Christian allies in the March 14 coalition.
Six years ago, then-king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Beirut to defuse a crisis between March 14 and their March 8 rivals, including Hezbollah, which threatened renewed conflict.
Directly or indirectly, through the billionaire businessman and former prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his assassinated father Rafik, Riyadh also channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to its allies in Lebanon. The Hariri family owns a major Saudi construction firm, Saudi Oger.
Viewed from the Gulf, the kingdom's actions reflect a rational re-evaluation of the diminishing returns on its efforts in Lebanon, frustration with its increasingly impotent Lebanese allies, and strategic priorities which placed the country well below Syria, Yemen and Iraq in a turbulent Middle East.