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Lebanon PM urges national unity amid Saudi pressure

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam (AFP photo)

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam has called for national unity in the face of Saudi pressure after Riyadh suspended a $4 billion in aid to Beirut amid a diplomatic row.

During a Thursday cabinet meeting, Salam highlighted the importance of national unity and urged ministers to “take into consideration the Arab consensus during the difficult and delicate crisis [the country] is passing through,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige quoted him as saying.

Beirut-Riyadh ties have recently soured after Saudi Arabia suspended a $3-billion package to the Lebanese army and a remainder of $1 billion in aid to its internal security forces earlier this month.

The suspension came after Lebanon refused to endorse joint anti-Iran statements issued last month at separate meetings held in Cairo and Jeddah.

Riyadh also called on Tuesday on all its nationals in Lebanon to leave the country due to deteriorating political relations with Beirut.

Lebanese ministers rejected Saudi calls for apology to the kingdom. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish said Beirut had “committed no wrong for which to apologize.”

Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan also voiced surprise over Riyadh’s measures against Beirut. “I don’t understand this great equation: we either apologize or we must bear a collective punishment.”

Economy Minister Alain Hakim, however, urged calm and said the country should not “panic before any measures by [Persian] Gulf states because such fears harm our economy.”

Saudi severed diplomatic relations with Iran on January 3 in the wake of the attacks on two of its diplomatic missions in Iran amid the angry protests over the execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This is while Tehran condemned the violence and made dozens of arrests after the incidents.

A number of Riyadh’s allies, including Bahrain, Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti, also followed the kingdom’s lead under pressure and broke off diplomatic ties with Tehran. The Saudis pledged the Somali government USD 50 million in aid on the same day Mogadishu declared it had cut ties with Iran, according to a leaked document.

Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah has slammed Saudi Arabia for suspending aid to the country’s army and said the move exposes the real face of Saudi Arabia and refutes its claims about fighting terrorism.

A handout picture released on May 16, 2015 shows a Hezbollah fighter firing towards militant positions on the Syrian side of the Qalamun hills close to the Lebanese borders. ©AFP

The Saudis are apparently irked by the victories of the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah resistance fighters, against the Takfiri militants fighting to topple the Damascus government with the backing of Riyadh.

Meanwhile, some analysts believe the Saudi regime is pressuring Lebanon to regain the influence it lost there in 2011, when the cabinet of former pro-Saudi prime minister, Saad Hariri, collapsed.

They say the kingdom might take further steps against Lebanon such as stopping flights to the country or evicting thousands of Lebanese nationals working in Saudi Arabia.

A number of Lebanese media outlets also speculate that Riyadh is exerting pressure on Beirut to secure the release of a Saudi prince jailed in Beirut for drug smuggling.

Saudi Prince Abdel Mohsen Bin Walid Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was arrested in Lebanon in late October with two tons of amphetamines at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut last October.

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