When Najib Mikati became Prime Minister of Lebanon in September, he insisted in his first speech that re-establishing ties with the country’s allies in the Gulf was a priority for his government.
Three months later, Lebanon faces a new diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia, the second in six months.
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said in an interview that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen were acting in self-defense against foreign forces, comments that shocked Riyadh.
A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in Yemen months after the fall of Sana’a in 2015 to support the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
Mr Kordahi’s remarks have raised fears that the Lebanese political establishment is alienating itself from Saudi Arabia, a historic ally and major investor the cash-strapped country cannot afford to lose.
“Lebanon was already at its lowest and now it is isolating itself even more,” said Fadi Ahmar, professor of Middle East studies.
Mr. Mikati and Lebanese President Michel Aoun distanced themselves from Mr. Kordahi’s words but refrained from asking him to resign. They said his views did not represent the government.
Mr Ahmar said the stalemate could force the government to resign.
âThere is a contradiction in Mikati’s behavior. How can you restore relations with the Gulf but also meet the needs of Hezbollah and its allies? ” He asked.
Lebanon continues to face the economic crisis. Since 2019, the Lebanese pound had lost more than 90% of its value as decades of corruption, mismanagement and a lack of foreign exchange devalued the pound, pushing nearly 80% of the population into poverty.
A history of financial and political support
Saudi Arabia has always supported Lebanon financially and politically, despite strained ties over the years as Iran-backed Hezbollah gains greater influence in politics.
The kingdom bailed out Lebanon when it was in financial difficulty in the early 2000s. Riyadh was also a major investor in the country’s post-war reconstruction and helped negotiate the Taif Accord in 1990, putting end of 15 years of civil war.
In addition to reconstruction funds, investments and aid, Saudi Arabia was a major source of tourism income for Lebanon in the early 2000s. The Gulf is still a major source of remittances for the Lebanese. shaken by economic collapse.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a business tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, brought the two countries closer during Lebanon’s war years.
Gulf tourists have taken to the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon during the summer, providing a major source of income for businesses.
Tourists have almost completely disappeared from Lebanon today. Saudi Arabia has banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon for security reasons.
Wider support for Riyadh is widely seen by Beirut and Western powers as the key to mitigating Lebanon’s economic collapse, as the kingdom was important to the country’s post-war rebirth.
Whenever Hariri sought support or investment for Lebanon, whether to rebuild downtown Beirut after the war or to secure donor funds, he always knocked on Riyadh’s door first.
In 2007, Saudi Arabia led the engagement efforts in Paris II donors conference, pledging $ 1.1 billion to Lebanon out of $ 7.6 billion raised. Saudi Arabia pledged the same amount at the Cedre conference in 2018.
A year earlier, Riyadh and Kuwait injected $ 1.5 billion in Lebanon central bank, saving the Lebanese pound from total collapse after a month-long conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
The kingdom’s support earned the Lebanese political elite the trust of Western and Arab donors.
Hariri’s son Saad, himself a former prime minister, gradually lost the support of the Gulf.
In 2016, he formed a unity government with Hezbollah that brought Beirut closer to Iran’s orbit. Since then, Lebanese-Arab relations have been strained.
That same year, Riyadh suspended $ 3 billion in aid to the Lebanese army, after Lebanon refused to condemn Iranian attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The 2019 economic crisis eroded the little confidence the international community, including the Gulf countries, had left in the Lebanese elite.
Lebanese politicians have been widely accused of corruption and mismanagement. Political inaction has prevented reform, a crucial requirement to unlock billions of dollars in loans and debt relief.
More than 15 years after the assassination of Rafik Hariri at the hands of a Hezbollah agent, Lebanese politicians and the international community still regard Saudi Arabia as crucial for the rebirth of Lebanon.
At the height of the energy crisis in Lebanon in July, the American and French ambassadors in Lebanon traveled to Riyadh to try to persuade the kingdom to become more involved in the country, but to no avail.
Mr Ahmar said there was already little hope of Saudi support for Mr Mikati’s government. Mr. Kordahi’s statement could be the final nail in this coffin.
He said Mr. Kordahi should have resigned immediately to contain the crisis, but he was emboldened by Hezbollah’s support.
âTo make matters worse, the Prime Minister and the President had a mild reaction to Kordahi’s statement. The situation can only get worse now. They made it clear that it was a Hezbollah government, âAhmar said.
Second Gulf crisis in six months
Lebanon has had strained ties with the Gulf over the past decade as Hezbollah expands its influence in Beirut.
Kordahi’s statement marks the second time this year that a Lebanese minister has criticized Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and praised Hezbollah.
The incident cemented concerns in the Gulf that successive Lebanese governments have failed to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in politics.
The Iranian-backed group supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a group that has launched attacks against Saudi Arabia.
“Hezbollah terrorists control decision-making in Lebanon, turning the country into an arena and launching pad for countries that do not wish Lebanon and its people good luck,” the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry said on Friday. .
In May, Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon’s acting foreign minister at the time, suggested in a television interview that the Gulf states were responsible for the rise of ISIS and made derogatory remarks towards their people.
He resigned following an outcry from Gulf allies and Lebanese politicians.
Mr. Kordahi, a television personality turned minister, is renowned for his controversial views. He expressed his support and admiration for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
His remarks on the Houthis prompted Riyadh to recall its ambassador to Lebanon for consultations. The kingdom gave 48 hours for the departure of the Lebanese ambassador and banned all Lebanese imports.
Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit.
Imports into the Gulf were one of Lebanon’s few sources of foreign exchange.
Mr. Mikati vaguely suggested Mr. Kordahi’s resignation.
In a phone call late Friday evening, he said he asked Mr. Kordahi “to assess the national interest and take the appropriate decision in the interest of Lebanese-Arab relations.”
Mr. Kordahi retains a predominantly government spokesperson role, despite international calls for his dismissal.
Update: October 30, 2021, 5:31 p.m.