The Israel and Gulf countries’ normalization leaves Lebanon, already isolated, further marginalized at the regional level. Lebanon’s continuous domination by Hezbollah means that the country will be increasingly viewed as a growing security concern for Arab countries in the wake of the Abrahams accords, which will allow for more direct and covert coordination between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.
Unlike any other previous Arab treaties with Israel, the Abrahams accords have been mainly built on growing Arab security concerns over the expansion of Iranian activity in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive of Action Plan (JCPOA), initiated by the Obama administration. The nuclear agreement reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, 2015 allowed the lifting of some of the sanctions on Iran against Tehran curbing its nuclear activity. Yet, Iran’s regional foothold only grew in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the JCPOA with Iranian proxies’ power expanding their domination over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Enmity with Iran and its slow but sure advance into Arab countries combined with American disengagement from the region pushed Gulf countries to engage with Israel. While the Sultanate of Oman has long acted as a back channel for Iran and Israel, with Muscat hosting the Israeli Prime Minister in October 2018 and Qatar’s trade relations with Israel since the 90s, the UAE and Bahrain have taken the regional normalization path to a level different from than their counterparts.
The UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalization with Israel has mainly focused on the development not only of economic relations but mainly of security and strategic ties from the prism of the enmity with Iran. While not a part of the agreement, Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly provided it with its blessing. News of a not so secret meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was leaked to the media by Saudi advisors recently.
For these countries, Iran’s growing influence is viewed as the most pressing issue at hand. From that perspective, Lebanon is considered not only as deadweight, but as a possible security and foreign policy nightmare.
In the last few weeks, Lebanese media has circulated news of a UAE visa ban targeting Lebanese nationals. After numerous denials, a leaked document said applications for new employment and visit visas had been suspended for nationals – outside the UAE – of 13 countries including Lebanon until further notice. A source told Reuters the visas had temporarily stopped being issued over security concerns.
This could point to a wider and more systematic shift in Gulf security and foreign policy vis-a-vis Lebanon on the long run. The country is now largely viewed as a hostage of Hezbollah, which has infiltrated public institutions, more specifically those in charge of the country’s security. The Lebanese corrupt political class is too busy with its political bickering over power sharing agreements to care much about Hezbollah’s growing clout or its regional engagement that has made Lebanon a pariah state. Local security sources say that foreign countries fear that Lebanese passports with fake names could be used to stage terror operations against Israel in the Gulf. Concerns that Hezbollah might attempt to strike Israelis abroad only grew since the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, largely attributed to Israel.
Additionally, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have downgraded their diplomatic representation. The move may not only respond to possible security concern but show the Gulf’s disapproval with recent government formations dominated by Hezbollah and its allies. Caretaker PM Hassan Diab was primarily considered as a Hezbollah- backed candidate upon his appointment.
Gulf countries also appear to be slowly reducing the number of Lebanese consultants within their ministries. According to multiple accounts, Saudi ministries are slowly banning Lebanese consultants from certain Saudi ministries, although dual Lebanese nationals are still allowed to provide their services.
This represents an economic catastrophe for Lebanon, which relies heavily on remittances from the Gulf, accounting for 45% of total remittances, with Saudi Arabia 20% alone.
Greater foreign policy coordination between Israel and Gulf countries could translate into a long-term visa restriction policy for Lebanese nationals, which have long dominated a large part of the Gulf employment market. This could also be followed by a unified policy toward Lebanon in terms of sanctions on political figures and financial institutions as well as state institutions considered as falling under the influence of Hezbollah. Such a move could hamper the political, economic, and financial relations between the Gulf and Lebanon, which will be increasingly viewed with much enmity. Hezbollah’s ill-suited policies favoring Iran have managed in a decade or so to destroy the historical friendship tying Gulf countries to Lebanon.