UAE issues travel ban to Lebanon, Saudi calls for its citizens to leave

Riyadh on Tuesday urged its citizens in Lebanon to leave the country immediately “for their own safety” days after cancelling $4 billion in aid to the Lebanese security forces.

Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam, right, speaks during a press conference in Beirut on February 22, 2016. Bilal Hussein/AP Photo
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BEIRUT // The UAE on Tuesday banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon and said it was reducing the size of its diplomatic staff in the country.

The announcement came shortly after Saudi Arabia urged its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately “for their own safety”.

The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said it was upgrading “the travel warning to Lebanon to a complete ban, with effect from Tuesday”, the Wam state news agency reported.

In Riyadh, the foreign ministry issued a statement calling on “all citizens not to travel to Lebanon, for their own safety, and asking citizens residing in Lebanon or visiting not to stay unless extremely necessary,” the official Spa news agency reported.

The travel warnings came days after Saudi Arabia cancelled US$4 billion (Dh15bn) in aid to Lebanon’s security forces.

Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Gulf states asked their citizens to avoid Lebanon in 2012 and 2013. Those travel warnings came at a time when Lebanon was greatly destabilised by Syria’s war, facing bombings, frequent bouts of sectarian fighting and specific kidnapping risks against Gulf nationals.

With Lebanon comparatively stable since late 2014, the latest travel advisories come amid growing tensions between GCC countries and members of Lebanon’s divided government.

Saudi Arabia unexpectedly cancelled the aid to Lebanon’s army and police forces on Friday. The kingdom criticised the Lebanese foreign minister’s refusal to endorse Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation statements condemning mob attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January. The attacks followed Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric convicted of terrorism charges.

Riyadh also condemned the influence of Hizbollah in Lebanon and condemned the group’s “terror acts” in the Arab world.

The withdrawal of aid caused an uproar in Lebanon as Saudi Arabia’s allies in the country quickly blamed Hizbollah and Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil, whose Free Patriotic Movement is allied with the Shiite group.

Mr Bassil has defended not formally condemning the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions, saying he was preserving Lebanon’s neutrality. He says he refused to endorse an Arab League statement condemning the attacks as it made references to Hizbollah having links to terrorist activities.

Despite Lebanon’s official stance of disassociation from regional conflicts, Hizbollah has deployed its militia to Syria to back the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Across many parts of Lebanon, Hizbollah forces move freely without interference from security forces and operate a state within a state.

On Sunday, Lebanon’s justice minister Ashraf Rifi resigned from his post citing Hizbollah’s dominance in the country.

Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam, along with Saudi ally Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, and others have asked Riyadh to reconsider its decision to cancel its grants to the country’s security forces.

Lebanon’s cabinet met on Monday to address its latest crisis and the direction of the country’s foreign policy. A statement agreed upon at the meeting reasserted Lebanon’s Arab identity and confirmed its policy of disassociation from the region’s conflicts. But it stopped short of condemning the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions and aligning with the Gulf.

While tourists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were once a frequent sight in Beirut, their numbers have dropped off sharply since the civil war in neighbouring Syria began in 2011. Many who once drove across Syria to Lebanon in the summer months stopped as war took hold of Syria.