- Dispute triggered by criticism of the Saudi campaign in Yemen
- Crisis shakes Beirut as it seeks to end economic collapse
- Gulf Arabia expel envoys, Riyadh stops imports from Lebanon
- Gulf Arabs are home to large Lebanese expat communities
BEIRUT, Nov. 1 (Reuters) – Lebanon, already submerged in economic collapse, is facing Gulf Arab anger after a prominent ministerial broadcaster launched a series of blunt criticisms of Saudi Arabia who have further strained Beirut’s relationships with once generous benefactors.
Many ordinary Lebanese fear that it is they who will pay the price for the diplomatic chilling caused by the recent dispute rooted in a longstanding rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that underpins the conflicts in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab monarchies once spent billions of dollars on aid in Lebanon and still provide jobs and a haven for much of the vast Lebanese diaspora. But the friendship has been strained for years by the growing influence of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
The Gulf Arabs’ relations with Lebanon hit a new low last week when George Kordahi, a former game show host who was recently appointed Minister of Information, appeared in an interview to support the Iranian allied Houthis in Yemen and the criticize Saudi-led forces against which they are fighting.
For Riyadh, whose influence in Lebanon has waned with the rise of Tehran, Kordahi’s remarks were only a symptom of Hezbollah’s continued dominance in the political scene, even though they were taped before he took office.
As the Houthis advance into Yemen, the consequences of his utterances underscore the depth of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Gulf concerns over Tehran have been fueled by the lack of progress in US-led efforts to revitalize an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear work.
Saudi Arabia and other US-allied Gulf states have long fought to counter Tehran’s influence across the region by arming, training and funding Shiite Muslim groups along the lines of Hezbollah, which was founded in 1982.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told Reuters over the weekend the issue went beyond comments made by Kordahi, who was appointed to the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati by Suleiman Frangieh, a Maronite Christian and close ally of Shiite Muslim Hezbollah.
“It is important that the government in Lebanon … paves a way forward that frees Lebanon from the current political construct that strengthens Hezbollah’s dominance,” said Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
Saudi Arabia and allies in the Gulf have expelled Lebanese ambassadors and recalled their ambassadors from Beirut. Riyadh has also stopped imports from Lebanon, which was already suffering from a previous Saudi ban on Lebanese fruits and vegetables by Riyadh due to drug smuggling in shipments.
“From the perspective of Riyadh, this latest crisis is seen as an opportunity to put pressure on the Lebanese system to take a stand against Iran and Hezbollah,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Seen from Tehran, Riyadh’s move shows the Saudis are losing on the diplomatic front against Iran and need some leverage, said a senior Iranian hardliner near Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office.
But while Riyadh might be able to isolate Lebanon, it couldn’t isolate Hezbollah, the official said.
For Lebanon’s decimated economy, the great concern would be all of the measures affecting the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the dollars they are sending home to a poverty-drowning nation.
Fear seizes Lebanese expats in the Gulf, despite official assurances that they will not be sent home.
UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Saudi Arabia was careful not to punish the Lebanese, as other Gulf states did. But other steps could be taken “to convey the Gulf’s deep dissatisfaction with Hezbollah,” including the suspension of flights, he said.
It is not the first time in recent years that hostility towards Hezbollah has led Riyadh to crack down on Lebanon.
In 2017, then Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly resigned during a visit to Riyadh and plunged Lebanon into a crisis. Sources, including the French president, said Saudi Arabia held him prisoner at the time. Riyadh denies this.
Another crisis was the last thing Mikati needed to tackle the financial crisis that plunged more than three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty.
Mikati, a billionaire tycoon, said Kordahi’s remarks were made before he became minister and had nothing to do with the government. Kordahi said he won’t give up.
Mikati’s cabinet was already in trouble because of a stalemate over an investigation into the Beirut port explosion last year. The cabinet has not met since October 12.
Western states want progress on the way to an IMF deal and punctual elections on March 27th. Hezbollah opponents see the election as an opportunity to overthrow the 2018 majority of the group and parties that support their gun ownership.
Christian seats are seen as an area where Hezbollah’s allies could lose. One party that wants to win is the anti-Hezbollah, the Christian Lebanese Forces, widely regarded as the last great Lebanese ally of Riyadh.
Lebanon is “cut off from the Arab world by the behavior of Hezbollah and its allies in the government,” said Ghassan Hasbani of the LF, a former deputy prime minister.
Reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Ghaida Ghantous and Raya Jalabi, Aziz El Yaakoubi in the Gulf; Maha El Dahan, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut; Additional reporting by Timour Azhari, writing by Tom Perry, editing by William Maclean
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.