Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
Like rest of the world, Saudi Arabia is also passing through an economic phase, which calls for cutting down expenditure for the next few years to weather the storm.
There are many areas that need to be identified where we need to curtail our expenses. One of the most important things that we should do is to curtail aids to foreign countries. This is also very important at a time when the aid that we offer to certain countries end up being used against our national interests. Lebanon is a prime example. Saudi Arabia generously offers help to Arab and Muslim countries without expecting anything in return but that does not mean that it can tolerate the same funds used against its own people.
Many years ago, I read a book written by David Gilmour. The book is about Lebanon’s social and political situation. The title of the book was “Lebanon: The fractured country.” The title spoke volumes about Lebanon and the nature of the book. It is correct that Lebanon is a fractured country and from what I feel it is more than that, it is actually fractured and lost.
I have only been to Lebanon once in 2003 and stayed there for about 10 days. It is difficult to properly understand a country or a people in 10 days.
We all know that we probably have more Lebanese in Riyadh than in any Lebanese city other than Beirut. I wanted to see Lebanon, its people, it streets and its little scattered cities and villages. After a few days, it was apparent that Lebanon had 90 percent of its wealth and infrastructure based in Beirut. And after a few nights in the city and some nearby districts up in the mountains, it was clear that yes, you can hear enough music and eat a lot of food, this all about Lebanon.
I saw many old beautiful buildings, old schools and old hospitals, but all were built by the French many years ago. And there were no decent roads connecting other cities with the capital. In addition to that, there was a clear social gap between the haves and have nots. And because I know that the Arab Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia had provided Lebanon with tens of billions of dollars in direct financial aid, so, the question is, where did all the money go in a country that has only about 6 million people and covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometers.
The country has many tourist attractions and archeological sites that seem to be in a state of neglect. In other words, Lebanon has the most strategic locations. And since the 1960s, Lebanon has been way ahead of most countries not only in the region but also in the world. Beirut had a chance and golden opportunities to become Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. The 1970s Gulf states’ economic boom money could have been in Lebanese banks and financial centers. So, if this didn’t help Lebanon, then Saudi aid would never do. And this is the beginning of another story.
Saudi Arabia didn’t help only Lebanon, but, we helped all Arab and Muslim counties with massive direct financial aid, soft loans, building schools, hospitals, roads and many other infrastructures that could have been and should have been utilized back home instead. And it is true that countries like Saudi Arabia would have to be a big contributor to other countries and international organizations but we Saudis have to revisit our priorities. Especially as it turned out that some of the Lebanese didn’t appreciate the Saudi standing with Lebanon but instead they have stood against Saudi Arabia and its policies. This resulted in clear friction between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. And just last Friday Saudi Arabia blacklisted Lebanese individuals and firms that backed Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Now, Saudi Arabia has to face the reality that oil prices are down and there are many obligations inside Saudi Arabia that have to be met — more schools, roads and more jobs. So, it is important to have a closer look at any foreign aid to any country. It is true that countries that are international economic powers have to be major contributors to areas and countries that are in need but it is more important to look after the domestic needs.
As for Lebanon or other Arab countries that rely heavily on Saudi Arabia, they should know that handouts and free lunches couldn’t continue forever. In the past we gave many countries huge amount of financial aids to countries and around the world but the question is can we now afford it economically and socially? If not, then we have to start cutting our expenses by shrinking foreign aids and concentrating on the development of our own country.
Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Shrinking Foreign Aids reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.