EXPLANATION: Why Frustrated Saudis Hit Lebanon | World news
By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) – A televised comment by a game show host who became cabinet minister in Lebanon about the war in Yemen has taken the country’s crisis with Saudi Arabia to new depths.
Anger over George Kordahi’s remarks led the Arab Gulf states to further isolate Lebanon and threaten to split their new coalition government tasked with halting the country’s economic collapse.
Punitive measures from Saudi Arabia, once a key ally that poured millions of dollars into Lebanon, could create further economic problems. The kingdom has banned all Lebanese imports, a severe blow to a country whose main trading partner is in the Persian Gulf.
It is the latest escalation in rivalry that has long been playing out in Lebanon between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tensions over the dominant role of the Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon have dragged on for years.
Now Saudi officials are insisting there is no point in negotiating with the Beirut government after so much drift towards Iran.
But what is really behind Saudi Arabia’s angry reaction and what does it mean for the already embattled Lebanon?
The immediate spark was comments from Kordahi, who had gained popularity in the Arab world for hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on a Saudi television station.
Kordahi answered questions from an audience of young people from the region during a recent parliamentary performance recorded and streamed online. In response, he called the war in Yemen “absurd” and said the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had not attacked anyone and had the right to defend themselves.
The online broadcast was taped about a month before Kordahi was appointed Minister of Information in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government formed in September. Kordahi was named by a mainly Christian party allied with Hezbollah.
Saudi officials described his statements as “offensive” and prejudiced against the Houthis. Since 2014, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been fighting against the Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and northern parts of Yemen.
Most commentators believe Kordahi’s remarks are an excuse for the Saudis to vent their frustration with Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
The Saudis know what they don’t want – the growing Iranian influence in Lebanon – but they don’t know what to do about it, said Joseph Bahout, director of research at the American University of Beirut.
Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally of politicians in Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, which elects the prime minister under the country’s sectarian system. But the kingdom has never made the divided community a strong political proxy, just as the Shiite Hezbollah, with its powerful armed forces, has become Iran’s loyal ally in Lebanon.
In particular, since the assassination of its most powerful ally in 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the kingdom has lost its influence.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – notorious for its assertive, some say cheeky, foreign policy – Saudi Arabia took sporadic measures to get its way but failed to develop a coherent strategy or find new, well-rooted allies. All she could do was watch Hezbollah and its allies dominate the recent Lebanese governments.
Saudi Arabia’s most drastic move came in 2017 when then Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation, citing Hezbollah hegemony, in a televised statement of a brief visit to the kingdom in which he was apparently detained against his will.
The incident backfired. Hariri returned home and withdrew his resignation, supported by Hezbollah and its allies. He lost Saudi support.
Relationships have been cool ever since. Last spring, the Saudi authorities banned imports of all Lebanese products on allegations that they were used for drug smuggling.
Most recently, Riyadh refused to support Mikati as prime minister because of his coalition with Hezbollah. The Saudis were alone when Washington and Paris expressed their support for Mikati and hoped for some sort of leadership after more than a year without a government in Lebanon.
Frustrated, the Saudis seem to have vigorously opposed Kordahis ’statements. Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors from Lebanon and expelled Lebanese envoys to the kingdom.
The Saudi measures are a heavy blow to Mikati’s new government.
The import ban means the loss of millions of dollars in much-needed foreign currency. Any further escalation could undermine the jobs of more than 350,000 Lebanese in the Arab Gulf states, who send millions home in remittances.
Mikati and other officials have urged Kordahi to step down from the cabinet, but it is uncertain that doing so would resolve the gap.
Hezbollah stands firmly behind the minister and says his resignation will not solve what it called “blackmail” to force Lebanon to change its foreign policy.
All of this points to further internal divisions in a government already crippled by the investigation into the massive explosion in the port of Beirut last year that killed more than 200 people. Hezbollah has called for the chief investigating judge to be dismissed. A recent outbreak of street violence, the worst in years, has raised the specter of social tension ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections in March, which are expected to be a test for Hezbollah and its allies.
In a WhatsApp message to his cabinet that was read by local television networks, Mikati said the country was “on the edge of an abyss”.
He flew to Glasgow to seek French and American mediation, but his options are limited.
“We know they are upset. We know they don’t want a government with such a strong Hezbollah, ”said Bahout of the Saudis. “We know they know that without Hezbollah we cannot have a government.”
“It’s kind of a completely blocked and deadlocked situation,” he added.
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