Saudi Arabia's bitter Lebanese divorce

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.

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 centre 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 organisation, which led to reports of Lebanese nationals being forced to leave Gulf countries because of alleged Hezbollah links. 

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