Twenty-one years ago, Lebanese anchor George Kordahi (also spelled Qordahi) rose to pan-Arab fame through the Arabic version of the British television program “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It debuted on the Saudi channel MBC in November 2000, making Kordahi a household name in the Arab World. He became rich and famous until last September when he parted ways with his media career and joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati as Minister of Information.
On October 25, his successful career hit a brick wall due to—ironically—a television interview aired on the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV. Since then, his remarks have ignited a diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and the Gulf, and various parties have been calling on him to step down, less than two months after assuming office.
Kordahi raised eyebrows by calling the Yemen war “absurd,” saying that Houthi rebels were practicing “self-defense” against “aggression.”
During the interview, Kordahi raised eyebrows by calling the Yemen war “absurd,” saying that Houthi rebels were practicing “self-defense” against “aggression,” striking a particularly raw nerve in Saudi Arabia. Hours later, the Saudis called their ambassador to Lebanon and expelled the Lebanese ambassador to Riyadh. They then halted all imports from Lebanon and shut down MBC Studios in Beirut.
Over the next two days, Bahrain and the UAE also severed relations with Lebanon, sparking what might develop into an Arab boycott similar to the one imposed on Qatar in 2017-2019.
However, Lebanon is not Qatar and cannot sustain any kind of boycott. It has no massive gas reserve to rely on and its only income comes from tourism—mainly from Gulf states—and from Arab banking operations, which have come to a grinding halt in recent years due to the meltdown of the Lebanese financial sector.
For two years now, Lebanon’s cash-strapped economy has been suffering from a severe shortage of American dollars and a 90 percent devaluation of its local currency, which sent many Lebanese into financial ruin. The Lebanese state is bankrupt and has been relying on international aid to make ends meet, the most recent of which was a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is only a fraction of what Lebanon had originally been asking for—no less than $9-10 billion USD.
[On the Brink: Lebanon Faces Poverty, Civil War, or Partition]
A new round of talks was scheduled for this November but might be postponed due to a Saudi veto, or if the Mikati cabinet falls because of George Kordahi. The IMF estimates the Lebanese economy shrank by 25 percent last year, with inflation at a whopping 85 percent. The last thing the country needs is a confrontation with potential donors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Kordahi does not hide his pro-Hezbollah sympathies, and by extension, support for the Yemeni Houthis who have been fighting Saudi Arabia since 2015. He claims that his pro-Houthi remarks were made in an interview filmed on August 5, 2021, one month before he was named minister in the Mikati cabinet.
When they aired on October 25, they caused great embarrassment to Prime Minister Mikati, who is a lifelong friend of Saudi Arabia. Mikati came out with a statement saying that Kordahi’s views were “unacceptable” and did not reflect the policy of the Lebanese Government.
Various Lebanese leaders have voiced sharp criticism of Kordahi’s remarks, headed by prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Various Lebanese leaders have voiced sharp criticism of Kordahi’s remarks, headed by prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who said: “Sack this minister who is destroying our relations with the Arab Gulf before it is too late.” Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a historical ally of Saudi Arabia who holds dual Saudi Lebanese citizenship called Kordahi’s remarks “irresponsible” while another ally, former chief of internal security Ashraf Rifi said: “We demand the dismissal of Kordahi and (we) salute Saudi Arabia.”
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Houthi rebels raised billboards of George Kordahi in Yemen, thanking him for his support, while Hezbollah praised his “courage and honesty.” Meanwhile, Kordahi’s patron Suleiman Frangieh said that he refuses his minister’s resignation, insisting that he had done no wrong.
It was Frangieh, a staunch ally of Hezbollah and a ranking member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition, who nominated Kordahi for the Mikati cabinet. Frangieh is planning to run for president next October, when President Michel Aoun’s term expires, and badly needs Hezbollah’s support to reach Baabda Palace.
This is not the first time that a crisis erupts between Lebanon and the Gulf. Back in 2003 then-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri intervened personally to prevent the airing of a television program that was critical of Saudi Arabia. More recently, in May 2021, Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe was forced to resign over television remarks that were critical of the Kingdom. This confrontation is more severe, however, and is being used as a pretext by Saudi Arabia to distance itself completely from Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s Historic Role in Lebanon
Since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as patron of Lebanon’s Muslim community—a position that has been challenged by Iran since the 1980s, after the establishment of Hezbollah. In 1989, Saudi Arabia helped end the country’s long civil war through an agreement in the city of Taif, which has since been known as the Taif Accords.
The accords reduced the powers of the Lebanese Maronite Christian presidency, empowering the Sunni premiership, and established an equal representation in parliament between Muslims and Christians. In 1992, the premiership went to Rafik al-Hariri and lasted until his assassination in 2005. Hariri was a Saudi-made Lebanese tycoon whose era witnessed a tremendous increase in Saudi influence.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has sought—with little luck—to dilute Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has sought—with little luck—to dilute Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. In 2005, it blamed Hezbollah for the assassination of Hariri, supporting an international UN tribunal for Lebanon. One year later, the kingdom supported UNSCR 1701, which called for the monopolization of arms in the hands of the Lebanese government and pushed all non-state players (in reference to Hezbollah) away from the borders with Israel.
When that also failed, the Saudis nudged then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to strike at Hezbollah by dismantling its telecommunications network at Rafik al-Hariri International Airport. That too ended in failure as Hezbollah troops stormed the Lebanese capital, disarming the handful of militias— associated either with the Future Movement of Saad al-Hariri or with the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea— that had showed up to confront them.
Saudi Arabia then tried supporting dissident Shiites like Subyhi Tufayli, the former secretary-general of Hezbollah. That too was unsuccessful at penetrating Hezbollah’s power base in the Lebanese south and in al-Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut where the group reigns.
Throughout it all, Hezbollah remained as powerful as ever, thanks to its massive arsenal and the unwavering backing of Iran.
Throughout it all, Hezbollah remained as powerful as ever, thanks to its massive arsenal and the unwavering backing of Iran. It has steadily increased its presence in the Lebanese parliament (now with a bloc of 13 MPs) and has had the final say on every prime minister nomination since the early 1990s. No cabinet sees the light unless its head promises to “support and embrace the arms of the resistance,” a statement carefully inserted into every cabinet policy statement from Rafik al-Hariri to Najib Mikati.
While Iran sees Nasrallah as a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia deplores the lack of leadership to lean on in the Sunni Muslim community since Hariri’s demise in 2005. His son Saad is too weak and has proven incapable of standing up to Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia has frequently tried reaching out to other Sunnis for help, including Ashraf Rifi, who expressed a willingness to take on the party but unfortunately lacked the manpower—and money—for such a confrontation.
The Saudis are now pursuing a new approach: total disengagement from Lebanon, hoping that the country will collapse from within. Hezbollah and Iran will shoulder blame for that collapse, and responsibility for pulling the country back together. That might take years and will require plenty of money—money that Iran does not have and only Saudi Arabia can provide.