As if Lebanon didn’t already have enough troubles, it’s now become a flashpoint in a regional power conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Already struggling with political paralysis and economic collapse, Lebanon faces a potentially perilous standoff with some powerful Middle East neighbors: Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries recalled their diplomatic representatives and ordered the expulsion of their Lebanese counterparts. The latest crisis was precipitated by Lebanon’s minister of information, George Kordahi, who has had harsh words about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s bloody civil war. That conflict has pitted the government of Yemen, backed by the Saudis, against the Houthi rebels, who are receiving support from Iran, a longtime antagonist of Saudi Arabia.
Some analysts have suggested that Saudi Arabia is using Kordahi’s remarks as a pretext for punishing the Lebanese government for its domination by Hezbollah, a political party with a strong paramilitary wing that receives considerable support from Iran.
Kordahi’s interview took place in August, before he was named to the Lebanese government. Kordahi described the efforts of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to help Yemen suppress the Houthi rebels as “futile,” and stated that the Houthis were merely fighting to defend themselves.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told CNBC Sunday morning that the diplomatic confrontation had less to do with Kordahi’s words than with the malign influence of Hezbollah on the Lebanese government:
The comments by the minister are a symptom of a reality — a reality that the political scene in Lebanon continues to be dominated by Hezbollah, a terrorist group that by the way arms and supplies and trains the Houthi militia.
Lebanon’s political relations with Saudi Arabia have suffered for years due to friction over Hezbollah’s position in the country.
Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen for several years; they and other Gulf countries have accused Iran of supporting those rebels. The rebels in turn have used territory in Yemen to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia. The conflict, which has left tens of thousands dead, has resulted in one of the most serious humanitarian crises in recent years.
“What I had said was that the war in Yemen has become an absurd war that must stop. … I said it with conviction, not in defense of Yemen, but also out of love for the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and their interests.” — George Kordahi
A statement by Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry on Saturday denounced the “hijacking” of Lebanon to make it “an arena and a launching pad for activities contrary to the interest of Lebanon and its people … as seen through Hezbollah providing support and training to the Houthi terrorist militia.” It also criticized the Lebanese government for failing to stop drug trafficking and for creating domestic instability.
In addition to its diplomatic offensive, Saudi Arabia announced it would suspend all imports from Lebanon and prevent its citizens from traveling to the country, where the economy already is in free fall, with severe food and fuel shortages and extended blackouts. Gulf states Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates carried out similar measures, recalling diplomatic representatives and/or expelling Lebanese counterparts. Qatar took less severe steps but still rebuked Kordahi for involving Lebanon in the external affairs of other “brotherly” Arab countries.
Within Lebanon, reactions to the diplomatic moves reflected Lebanon’s fractured political scene.
Kordahi is close to the Christian Marada Movement, a Lebanese political party allied with Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organization. In a statement, Hezbollah condemned Saudi Arabia for attacking Lebanon’s sovereignty and expressed support for Kordahi.
But some Lebanese leaders echoed Saudi Arabia’s demand for Kordahi to resign. Such demands raised fears that the rest of the newly formed cabinet might resign. The new government, led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, was announced in September, following 13 months in which political leaders bickered over whom to name to the Cabinet, while the country sank deeper into paralysis.
Kordahi has so far resisted pressure to resign, telling local media that such an option is “out of the question.” On Wednesday, before the start of the diplomatic rift, Kordahi sought to clarify his statement while stressing a desire to maintain positive relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
“What I had said was that the war in Yemen has become an absurd war that must stop,” Lebanon’s National News Agency reported him as saying. “I said it with conviction, not in defense of Yemen, but also out of love for the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and their interests. I hope that my words, and the uproar surrounding them, will be a reason to stop this harmful war for Yemen’s sake, as well as for the sake of the KSA and the UAE.”
The following day, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, expressed disapproval of Kordahi’s comments as he noted Lebanon’s reliance on the Gulf.
“We could’ve been better off without the Lebanese Minister of Information’s analysis or statement … for it has burnt the remnants of the frail relations between Lebanon and the Gulf states, which were and will ever remain the main incubator of Lebanon’s interests,” Jumblatt wrote on Twitter.
The secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, expressed concern and disappointment about the unfolding situation. Noting the dire economic situation in Lebanon, where mass poverty and hyperinflation have put huge strain and pressure on daily life, Aboul Gheit called on Gulf states to be mindful of the impact of their decisions.
Meanwhile, following a meeting with top government officials, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun announced Saturday night a desire to establish strong relations with Saudi Arabia, according to the NNA.