BEIRUT: After tensions escalated between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah following Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on Nov. 4, the situation of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in the Arab Gulf states has been thrown into question. Many now fear falling victim to the ongoing regional struggle. “There are nearly 400,000 Lebanese in Gulf states and I am responsible for all of those Lebanese who will be harmed abroad if Lebanon adheres to a particular axis,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in his first interview from Riyadh Sunday.
Speaking to The Daily Star last week, analyst at the U.S.-based Washington Institute, Hanin Ghaddar, warned of a possible Gulf-led Qatar-style blockade and sanctions.
With around 330,000 Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf – the majority in skilled positions – according to a May 2017 Migration Policy Center report, Lebanese expats and the country as a whole could face severe repercussions if this happens.
Saudi Arabia hosts the largest contingent of Lebanese workers in the area with around 160,000 Lebanese people living in the kingdom. Coming in second is the United Arab Emirates, which is home to about 100,000 Lebanese nationals.
According to Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research at Byblos Bank, the strong presence of Lebanese people in the Gulf has contributed approximately $3.1 billion in remittances to Lebanon annually.
Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, however, put the figure at closer to $1.5 billion. Drops in oil prices over the last few years have decreased the figure, he told The Daily Star.
“Any further action by all sides should put the livelihoods of these emigrants and their well-being at the center of the discussion,” Jad Chaaban, a Lebanese economist and American University of Beirut professor, tweeted Friday. Chaaban could not be reached for comment.
One Lebanese woman who has worked in the financial sector in Saudi Arabia for 14 years, expressed serious concerns over the escalating political tension.
“I am terrified,” Nour, whose name has been changed, told The Daily Star. “The opinion of Lebanese is not favorable ... especially in the deeply religious regions. But what can I do? I can’t stay in Lebanon, the economic and political system is too corrupt.”
A 27-year-old Lebanese male working in Riyadh made similar comments, speaking to The Daily Star with caution.
“If I don’t want to answer the question over the phone, I will change the subject,” Ghassan, whose name has also been changed, said. “People are obviously hoping that politically, things will become better ... we want all countries in the region to be unified.”
When asked whether Lebanese nationals were worried about job security, he admitted there was some conversation, but it was still too early to guess the consequences of recent events.
Kamal Hamdan, a Lebanese economist and managing director at the Consultation and Research Institute, downplayed the fears of a mass purge of Lebanese nationals from Gulf countries.
“First of all, the Lebanese workers cannot be compared to other migrant workers in the Gulf, namely Bengalis, Indians and Pakistanis,” Hamdan told The Daily Star. “Lebanese come skilled, and they have the advantage of speaking Arabic as opposed to their direct competitors who are mostly European and American.”
This has the effect, he says, of making Lebanese expensive to fire. “From a cost-benefit analysis, it’s not easy to replace the Lebanese with [a] non-Lebanese working population,” he said.
Hamdan added that the high number of Lebanese expats in Saudi Arabia was a large source of economic revenue, with the average expat staying for about five years.
“To be frank, we don’t have much information on the magnitude of the [recent] events. I feel that a mass deportation of Lebanese from Saudi [Arabia] would not be the most practical tactic for them, but we might see some layoffs here and there.”
The current political debacle between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon is by no means the first instance in which anti-Iranian sentiments forced Lebanese migrants – Shiites in particular – into an unstable situation.
Throughout 2015, the UAE deported hundreds of Lebanese workers and their families. Most were reported to be Shiite, but UAE Ambassador to Lebanon Hamad Saeed al-Shamsi denied the deportations were politically motivated.
“It is not a political issue between the two countries ... we are not targeting a specific segment of a specific sect. Such claims are totally untrue,” he told the Daily Star in July 2015 after 70 Lebanese nationals were expelled.
In February 2016, over 120 Lebanese nationals working in Saudi Arabia were deported, the majority also being Shiite. The round of deportation followed reports that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had produced lists of Lebanese expats thought to have links with Hezbollah.
Days after the mass deportation in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council officially classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Such precedents have seemed to fuel general anxiety among Lebanese expats. Both Ghassan and Nour noted that social media as well as communication over WhatsApp were being closely monitored .
A longtime ban on Whatsapp and similar online calling services such as Skype and Viber was finally lifted at the end of September as part of economic reforms in Saudi Arabia. However, Adel Abu Hameed, spokesman for the Saudi telecoms authority, the Communications and Information Technology Commission, publically warned that all calls would be monitored.
However, a 32-year-old male also working in Riyadh spoke with The Daily Star with relative ease, saying little had changed for him.
Jad, who also asked for his name to be changed, commented that constraints on social media has been a long-standing unspoken provision that all expats have adhered to.
“Perhaps now, there are more concerns given the situation,” he said.
Despite the uncertain political future, all three agreed that daily life has continued normally. While closely glued to their phones and TVs monitoring the news, they all told The Daily Star that they have continued going to work, seeing friends and carrying on with their daily lives with little change.
“Are we worried? Yeah we are worried, everyone is worried, but everything is continuing as normal,” Ghassan said.