Lebanon is going through a crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia and its Arab supporters in the Gulf, from which it desperately needs commercial and financial assistance. A Lebanese minister’s criticism of Saudi military involvement in Yemen is at the heart of a diplomatic dispute that plays a role in a regional competition for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia expelled the Lebanese ambassador, recalled his envoy to Beirut and banned imports from Lebanon after the comments were released by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi. Just before Kordahi became a cabinet member in September, he defended Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are receiving training from Hezbollah. He said Yemen was subjected to what he described as foreign aggression – an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf allies responded by recalling their ambassadors from Lebanon and expelling the envoys from Beirut. The Arab League has expressed concern over the rapidly deteriorating relationship.
Kordahi is a member of a small Christian party allied with Shiite Hezbollah. Knowing that his government is fragile, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged Kordahi to “put his patriotic sense above all” to defuse the crisis.
Meanwhile, influential Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi and others see Kordahi’s comments and his refusal to resign as detrimental to Lebanon’s national interests. Kordahi says the remarks were made before he took office in the government.
Political analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib, of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, told VOA that the Gulf states are fed up with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon.
“Mikati was so hopeful that the French might like to twist the Gulf’s arm and get money from them. It’s not just about Kordahi, it’s about dealing with this Hezbollah-controlled government. Hezbollah won’t let Kordahi resign unless he gets something. If Kordahi resigns, they will look weak, ”Khatib said.
Analysts say Mikati faces a daunting task in trying to restore relations with the Gulf countries.
Gulf trade and financial aid once ran into the billions of dollars. Lebanon cannot expect the same from Iran. A shipment of Lebanese pomegranates bound for Saudi Arabia in the spring, stuffed with more than 5 million amphetamine-type pills known as captagon, produced in the Hezbollah-ruled Bekaa Valley, put an end to this lucrative trade, Saudi Arabia banning all Lebanese fruits. and vegetables.
Veteran Lebanese Druze politician Walid Joumblatt has warned that Iranian-backed groups stand to gain from Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal from Lebanon, which suffers from severe economic and political crises.
“Giving up” Lebanon will make Hezbollah stronger, he recently told The National in Dubai. Observers say Tehran’s regional proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, also put at risk a possible thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations.