The Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi presented his resignation to President George Aoun on December 3, after a month marked by an acute diplomatic crisis between the Levantine nation and Saudi Arabia.
The minister caused an uproar after he described the Saudi military intervention in Yemen as “futile” during an interview which aired on Al Jazeera in late October. According to Kordahi, the Houthis are defending themselves against the “external attacks launched for years against Yemen.” The program was recorded in August 2021, more than a month before Kordahi’s appointment as Minister of Information.
Faced with what was perceived as an insult and provocation, Saudi Arabia reacted by suspending diplomatic and trade relations with Lebanon, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen.
In an interview with CNBC, the Saudi Foreign Minister said that maintaining relations with Lebanon was “neither productive nor useful” for the kingdom’s interests, given the “domination of Hezbollah on the political scene” and “the lack of will of the Lebanese government to implement the necessary reforms to entail real change.”
Supported by Hezbollah and the Marada party, Minister Kordahi had previously refused to resign or even make a formal apology to Saudi Arabia. His recent change of mind is allegedly part of a French and Qatari mediation to ease the discord. During his recent tour of the Gulf, President Emmanuel Macron called on Saudi Arabia to put an end to its retaliatory measures against Lebanon.
A Structural Crisis in Lebanese-Saudi Relations
It seems likely that this development alone will not be sufficient to amend the ties between Lebanon and the GCC nations. The considerable influence that Hezbollah holds in Lebanon means that the country is perceived by Saudi diplomacy as a proxy agent of the Iranian regime in the region.
The considerable influence that Hezbollah holds in Lebanon means that the country is perceived by Saudi diplomacy as a proxy agent of the Iranian regime in the region.
According to George Corm, a Lebanese historian and former Minister of Finance, Lebanon has historically been a “buffer state between rival ambitions of great powers.” In an interview with Inside Arabia, Corm explained that the crisis triggered by Saudi Arabia is part of a “policy designed to destabilize Lebanon to increase pressure on the anti-Saudi and pro-Houthi Hezbollah;” adding that “Saudi Arabia retains a very large influence in Lebanon, and a vast clientele that it mobilizes to serve its interests in the country.”
In 2017, Saudi Arabia tried to break the status quo by forcing Prime Minister Saad el-Hariri while in Saudi Arabia to offer his resignation due to his inability to curb Hezbollah’s influence in the country. Faced with popular pressure, the Lebanese political elite united against Saudi interference and called for the return of the Prime Minister.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has gradually disengaged from Lebanon, which it considers to be under the total control of Hezbollah. Successive calls by American and French ambassadors to Saudi Arabia to facilitate the formation of the Lebanese government this year remained a dead letter, as the kingdom finds no point in dealing with Beirut. Saudi Arabia’s main ally in Lebanon, the Lebanese Forces party, has joined the opposition to the regime and is not part of the Mikati government.
After the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, the country was under a Syrian protectorate with Saudi patronage, a situation that gave way to a division between the pro-Iran “March 8” and the pro-Saudi “March 14” coalitions following the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. The internal divisions of the March 14 coalition, the appointment of President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, as well as the victory of the March 8 movement in the 2018 parliamentary elections marked an upheaval in bilateral relations. Currently, Saudi Arabia seems to be dealing with Lebanon as an extension of Iran in the region.
A Retaliatory Act Against Hezbollah
Michael Young, researcher at Carnegie Middle East Institute, believes that “the Kordahi incident was used as an excuse to raise the heat on Lebanon, in the context of a fragile and faltering Saudi-Iranian dialogue,” he told Inside Arabia.
Indeed, many ministers in previous governments have criticized Saudi foreign policy, especially since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was controlled from 2014 to 2020 by Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of the president and ally of Hezbollah.
The territorial gains of the Houthis in the Ma’rib offensive last October have caused concern to the Saudi military coalition. The region is of strategic interest due to its oil wealth and its proximity to Saudi territory. Above all, it is the last stronghold of the Saudi-backed government in north Yemen.
Many Saudi media outlets have accused Hezbollah of providing substantial military aid to the Houthis.
Many Saudi media outlets have accused Hezbollah of providing substantial military aid to the Houthis. According to Al Ayyam media, this support takes the form of sending experts in military, political, and media affairs. Furthermore, Hezbollah is said to have encouraged the Houthis to avoid negotiating with the Saudis to end the Ma’rib offensive.
The Saudi diplomatic pressure on Lebanon is thus a retaliation against Iran and Hezbollah for the Ma’rib offensive, as well as a way to impose a quid pro quo in which Iran would force the Houthis to a settlement in exchange for the reestablishment of ties with Lebanon.
Therefore, the resignation of Kordahi is deemed a “necessary but not a sufficient condition to improve relations between Lebanon and Gulf countries,” Michael Young told Inside Arabia. This is a position reiterated several times by Saudi diplomats.
Deep Divisions Within Lebanese Leadership
This crisis reveals the significant divisions within the Lebanese leadership, and its inability to react in a unified manner in the absence of a national consensus on foreign policy. Indeed, the ministerial cabinet, formed after 13 months of a power vacuum, has not met since October 12 due to disagreements around the investigation of the Beirut port blast.
This crisis reveals the divisions within the Lebanese leadership, and its inability to react in a unified manner in the absence of a national consensus on foreign policy
Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati attempted to ease tensions by declaring that Lebanon is “committed to having the best relations possible with the Saudi kingdom,” and “condemns all interference in its internal affairs,” while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disassociated itself from the minister’s remarks.
President Aoun pleaded for an “honest dialogue between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia,” as well as a “separation between the decisions taken by the Lebanese state and the positions of certain individuals.”
However, these words fail to conceal the stark division on a united stance regarding this diplomatic crisis. Hezbollah, Amal, and Marada, which are backed by Kordahi, condemned the Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs, while top officials from the Presidency revealed their irritation towards the Saudi attitude, which they find is not based on “mutual institutional respect.”
The Lebanese diplomatic apparatus was plunged into additional turmoil after words from the Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdellah Bou Habib were leaked by the Saudi media outlet Okaz. The head of the Lebanese diplomacy is said to have criticized Saudi policy towards Lebanon and asserted that the country “imposed impossible conditions by asking the government to reduce the role of Hezbollah.”
Bou Habib allegedly went on to say that Lebanon could not “serve them the head of Hezbollah on a silver platter.” He also lamented the fact that the Saudi ambassador in Beirut never contacted the Lebanese diplomats to defuse the crisis.
The Lebanese Diaspora: Main Victims of the Crisis
The powerlessness of the Lebanese government constitutes a certain danger for the Lebanese living in the Gulf (estimated between 350 and 400,000 individuals), who are facing total uncertainty regarding their future in their host countries.
Jana Jabbour, associate fellow at the American University of Beirut, believes that “it is likely that the Saudi, Bahraini, and Kuwaiti governments take two measures that would be very damaging for Lebanon without harming Lebanese workers: The suspension of flights between Lebanon and their countries, and the suspension of remittances,” Jabbour told Inside Arabia.
Such measures might worsen the economic crisis, as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates account for 43 percent of remittances in 2020 and 27 percent of Lebanon’s total exports.
Jabbour tempers the risk of a massive expulsion of Lebanese workers, adding that it would be “counterproductive as they are actively contributing to these countries’ economies.” However, Kuwait has already decided to limit the issuance of visas to Lebanese citizens.
Between internal political divisions and foreign interferences, this crisis reflects the decay of Lebanese institutions and its lack of sovereignty. Lebanon is bending under the Saudi-Iranian tensions that threaten to implode the country and isolate it from its Arab neighbors.