Before he was appointed to his current post, Lebanese Information Minister Georges Kordahi granted an interview in which he criticized the Saudi and Emirati involvement in the war in Yemen and defended the Houthi fighters. After the interview aired last week, Saudi Arabia responded sharply, recalling its ambassador from Lebanon and directing the Lebanese ambassador to leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.
In addition, the kingdom declared that it would bar all agricultural imports from Lebanon and accused Hezbollah of exploiting these exports to smuggle drugs into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. (In one case, more than 5.2 million Captagon pills were hidden in a shipment of pomegranates.) The Saudis also froze the assets of the leading Iranian-Hezbollah financial institution and “benevolent society,” the Al-Qard al-Hassan, designating it as a terror organization. Al-Qard al-Hassan has been under U.S. sanctions since 2007.
Moreover, Saudi officials have accused Hezbollah of trying to change Lebanon’s Arab identity by striving to expand Iranian hegemony and adopting the Iranian Shi’ite theocracy.
The Saudi diplomatic moves were copied by Bahrain, Kuwait and the Emirates, who declared their full support for the Saudi démarche and asked the Lebanese ambassadors to leave while recalling their diplomatic representatives from Lebanon.
The fact that Kordahi’s interview was given before he became a government member was ignored by the Saudis, who took note of the recent accusations by Hezbollah leaders that the kingdom maintains relations with the nationalist Christian Lebanese Forces and its chief commander, Samir Geagea. Furthermore, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan accused Hezbollah and Iran of being behind Kordahi’s declarations.
In addition, he pointed at Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Yemen in tandem with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, under the instructions of Iran. “Lebanon needs a comprehensive reform that restores its sovereignty, strength and position in the Arab world,” Prince Faisal told Al Arabiya. “Hezbollah’s domination of the political system in Lebanon worries us and makes dealing with Lebanon useless.”
The Saudi and Gulf States’ move has shaken the political establishment in Lebanon and divided it into:
• Those who demand the immediate resignation of the information minister (Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Maronite Archbishop Bechara al-Rahi);
• Those who accuse Hezbollah of trying to draw Lebanon into Iran’s political hegemony (former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri);
• Those who declare that Lebanon will not bow to Saudi Arabia at any cost (Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada Party, and members of Hezbollah).
In the meantime, France and the United States have intervened and asked Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati not to announce the resignation of his government, even though it has barely met since its establishment two months ago. It has been paralyzed by Hezbollah, which threatened to leave the government if Judge Tariq Bitar’s investigation into the deadly Beirut Port explosion of Aug. 4, 2020, is not called off.
The United States has even offered, according to the Lebanese press, to mediate between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to find a compromise that would solve the crisis.
The Saudi move has serious implications for the Lebanese scene, which has witnessed three developments since October:
1. The gun battle that erupted in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood on Oct. 14, 2021, followed by the demand by Hezbollah that Samir Geagea and his Lebanese Forces’ role in the bloody events be investigated (a demand that, in true Lebanese style, had no follow-up).
2. The withdrawal of Shi’ite ministers from the government as a protest, with the aim of pressuring the premier and the president to remove Judge Bitar from his investigation of the Beirut Port explosion.
3. The Saudi diplomatic move, which has become the center of attention of Lebanon’s political establishment. The possible results of the Saudi move are such that it has eclipsed all earlier events; in Lebanon, it is considered a game-changer.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah have a long history of feud, especially since Hezbollah’s battles against Saudi allies in the Syrian civil war. This animosity was increased by the Shi’ite militia’s involvement in subversive activities in Saudi Arabia. Local Hezbollah forces have also been involved in missile and drone attacks from Houthi-held strongholds against Saudi targets.
The Saudi move, considered a blatant anti-Iranian act, ignores the ongoing détente discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, described by Saudi and Arab observers as feckless.
Strong actions against Lebanon
The sanctioning of Lebanon by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states has far-reaching significance. In Saudi Arabia alone, more than 350,000 Lebanese reside and send remittances to their families back home. This financial support is what enables those remaining in Lebanon to survive the catastrophic economic situation there. Moreover, freezing the assets of Qard al Hassan in Saudi Arabia and the decision of the UAE to prohibit the travel of Lebanese residents to and from Lebanon will prevent the transfer of funds to Shi’ite accounts in Lebanon designated to—among other things—assist Hezbollah.
Banning the importation of all agricultural products from Lebanon is a far-reaching decision, since these products represent 55.4 percent of all agricultural exports from Lebanon. Lebanese exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to $282 million in 2019. The 600-plus Lebanese business entities present in Saudi Arabia, with a total value of $125 billion, are not affected by the Saudi decision—yet. If further punitive measures are adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council and Saudi Arabia, the collapse of the financial system in Lebanon is inevitable.
Saudi Arabia is playing to its strengths
Saudi Arabia has chosen to compete in a field where it excels—diplomacy. Hezbollah has been concentrating on the internal scene in Lebanon, assessing that no other political force could derail its efforts to transform Lebanon into an Iranian province. With its surprise move, Saudi Arabia has injected a new element into the equation: an open challenge to Hezbollah and Iran on the Arab identity of Lebanon.
If Lebanon accepts Kordahi’s resignation or even apologizes to Saudi Arabia for the interview, it would be perceived as a Saudi victory. On the other hand, refusing to force the resignation of Kordahi would worsen the situation inside Lebanon and of those Lebanese in the Gulf states. It would signal a weakness Hezbollah cannot afford in the context of Lebanon’s power struggle.
IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.