In blow to Lebanon’s economy, Gulf states tell citizens to stay away

Recent confrontations between Palestinian factions leave several dead, raising international apprehensions

 Lebanese army members stand on an observation tower during a Lebanese army media tour near the Lebanese-Israeli border (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Lebanese army members stand on an observation tower during a Lebanese army media tour near the Lebanese-Israeli border
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

Gulf states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain urged their citizens to leave Lebanon “for their own safety” days after fierce fighting between Palestinian groups took place in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, southern Lebanon.

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The four days of fighting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and Islamist groups have left 13 dead, dozens injured, and thousands displaced.

The Saudi Embassy in Beirut published a statement Friday night on X, formerly known as Twitter, calling on its citizens to keep away from areas where there are “armed conflicts” and to leave Lebanon quickly.

The embassy statement stressed “the importance of adhering to the Saudi travel ban to Lebanon.”

Kuwait also issued an advisory early on Saturday calling on Kuwaitis in Lebanon to stay alert and avoid “areas of security disturbances” but stopped short of asking them to leave the country, according to a statement by the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry posted on X.

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said Bahrainis should abide by the government’s previous decisions to avoid travel to Lebanon.

Fahad Al-Shulaimi, president of the Gulf Forum for Peace and Security, told The Media Line that the main reason behind the decision by the Gulf states is the presence of armed clashes in the Ain al-Hilweh camp and the fear of its expansion beyond the camp’s perimeter.

 Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a cabinet meeting, at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a cabinet meeting, at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

“The evacuation of nationals is the duty of states to preserve the interests and lives of their nationals, especially in unstable countries, and it is a normal procedure used by many countries,” said Al-Shulaimi, adding that it’s not unusual for governments to issue such advisory.

Last week, Britain and Germany advised their citizens not to travel to southern Lebanon.

To ease these countries’ fears, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Saturday that there was no cause for “concern or panic” about his country’s security situation.

In a statement, Mikati said he had spoken with his security chiefs and assessed that the situation “does not call for concern or panic.” He said there had been “significant progress” in resolving the violence outbreak, adding that Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib had been in contact with Arab countries to assure them that their citizens were safe in Lebanon.

“There’s a lack of a sense of security in Lebanon for the nationals,” Al-Shulaimi said.

The kidnapping of a Saudi National sparked clash

Last May, Saudi national Mushari al-Mutairi was kidnapped in Beirut and reportedly held for ransom. Al-Mutairi was released in a “special operation” along the Lebanon-Syria border, where the kidnappers held him hostage, a Lebanese military statement said.

Saudi state-run TV station Al Ekhbariya reported that the kidnappers demanded a $400,000 ransom for al-Mutairi, who works for the Saudi national airline Saudia.

“There’s a lack of a sense of security in Lebanon for the nationals,” Al-Shulaimi said.

Lebanon currently has an interim government with no strong authority, due to the resignation of the previous cabinet following widespread public protests and political crises, including the devastating Beirut Port explosion in August 2020, which exacerbated longstanding governance and economic issues in the country.

The existing Lebanese parties are “tyrannical, dominant, and sometimes stronger than the government,” Al-Shulaimi said.

Al-Shulaimi said that embassies are the ones who submit reports and advise their governments to take such steps. He added that the presence of citizens of the Gulf states in Lebanon for the purpose of summer tourism and their presence in foreign places puts them in a dangerous position.

“The Lebanese government is in a state of turmoil and political confusion, and cannot really perform its duties in full,” Al-Shulaimi said.

These calls couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Lebanese economy is on the verge of collapse, and losing tourists could spell disastrous to the tiny country, whose economy has been reeling since 2019.

The political instability in combination with an ongoing economic crisis has turned the country once dubbed the “Paris of the East” into a country struggling to survive.

Lebanon ranks not only “among the most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century,” according to the World Bank, but it is also likely that “an unprecedented institutional vacuum will further delay any agreement on crisis resolution and critical reform ratification, deepening the woes of the Lebanese people,” the World Bank report says.

The most recent crisis began late last month when fighting broke in the Palestinian refugee camp after Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, a senior Fatah security official, was gunned down inside the camp, allegedly at the hands of Jund al-Sham, a hardline Salafist group.

The camp includes several Palestinian factions, most notably the Fatah movement, Osbat al-Ansar, the Palestine Liberation Front, and other Islamic forces.

Mikati called the fighting a “flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” and said it was unacceptable for the warring Palestinian groups to “terrorize the Lebanese, especially the people of the south who have embraced the Palestinians for many years,” according to a statement released by his office.

The Lebanese army generally doesn’t enter the Palestinian camps, which are controlled by a network of Palestinian factions.

Dr. Wissam Wani, director of the Roya Center for Studies and Research in Lebanon, told The Media Line the truce reached after the fighting still holding, but the situation remains tense.

“The parties agreed to a truce after two days of clashes that led to the displacement of 2,000 people, and many serious injuries that were transferred to different hospitals,” Wani said.

However, Wani said the stability and longevity of the agreement depended on “the surrender of the suspects in the killing of al-Armoushi, but until this moment this matter has not been completed.”

“If the killers are not handed over, things will not calm down,” Wani said.

According to Wani, those who killed al-Armoushi are known to be from Jund al-Sham.

“Many of the members of this group are wanted by the Lebanese government and have sentences. If they feel they are cornered, they may target the army and engage it in battle. This is their method,” Wani said.

He denies that the Palestinian Authority is behind this escalation.

Wani says this group is not as strong as the Fatah movement but relies on “treachery” and “assassination” in its dealings.

The commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Subhi Abu Arab told The Media Line that the situation continues to be very “sensitive” and “dangerous.”

Abu Arab said that Palestinian factions are in “communication” with the Lebanese army.

The camp suffers from extreme poverty, and its residents live in grim conditions.

Ain al-Hilweh camp was established after the Nakba in 1948, and it is the largest camp in Lebanon among 12 Palestinian refugee camps, which host up to 250,000 Palestinian refugees, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.