In the latest escalation of disputes between the Gulf states and Lebanon, the UAE called on its citizens to immediately return home this week, updating its travel guidance for UAE nationals not to visit the country.
The move came a day after the UAE had recalled its diplomats from Beirut over a Lebanese minister’s remarks on the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also condemned the remarks by the Lebanese information minister, who described the war as an “aggression” by outside countries. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Beirut and asked the Lebanese ambassador in Riyadh to leave. The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait then followed in Saudi footsteps.
Qatar condemned the Lebanese minister’s remarks but did not sever diplomatic relations with Beirut.
The only member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a neutral position was Oman. The Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs “expressed its deep regret over the strained relations between a number of Arab countries and the Republic of Lebanon.”
“The Sultanate also calls on all countries to exercise restraint and work to avoid escalation and address differences through dialogue and understanding in a manner that preserves the supreme interests of countries and their people and security, stability and cooperation based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs,” it said.
In an interview recorded in August and aired this week, Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen were “defending themselves… against an external aggression,” sparking a diplomatic row between Beirut and the Arab Gulf states.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said it had moved after the “insulting remarks on the Yemen War… and the influence of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite movement Hizbullah” in causing them. The moves made by the GCC countries also come against the backdrop of the remarks about Yemen.
Iran’s influence in both Lebanon and Yemen is a major concern for the GCC, especially now that there is a possibility of rehabilitating Tehran internationally.
Last week, Iranian negotiators had a “positive” meeting with the European countries that signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. The aim is to resume Iranian-US negotiations meant to bring Washington back to the deal, from which former president Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.
The move coincided with a lull in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that has been the talk of media reports over recent weeks. The Iranian news agency IRNA reported this week that Iranian officials see Saudi Arabia’s response in bilateral meetings as “very slow,” and Tehran has asked Riyadh to speed up the resumption of diplomatic relations, though it seems that the Saudis are reluctant.
According to one Gulf analyst who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, Saudi Arabia considers that the resumption of relations would be a reward for Iran. He said that Iran is still following its aggressive policy of “supporting terrorist groups in the region like the Houthi militia in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon… Resuming diplomatic relation would be like you give them something and they give nothing back. Unless they show a change of policy, stop meddling in the region, and refrain from supporting these proxies, you would not expect normal relations.”
A Western diplomat who has spent time in the Gulf said that the rift with Lebanon was mainly because efforts to combat Iranian influence in the country had not paid off. “Gulf aid to Lebanon stopped years ago, and that led to a dire economic crisis that Hizbullah tried to alleviate by drafting in Iranian support. The current financial crisis has stirred popular anger at the Gulf countries in Lebanon more than it has at Hizbullah and its allies,” he told the Weekly.
The Gulf countries seem to have abandoned Lebanon years ago, but they have not ignored the Iranian influence in the country through Hizbullah. Gulf aid to Lebanon has dried up, and Gulf investments and deposits in Lebanese banks are no longer coming in. But the countries have maintained relations and some support so as not to leave the country entirely under Iranian influence. As the region is being reshaped, all the players are playing their crucial cards.
In a briefing to journalists in Dubai some years ago, an Emirati minister said that his country’s stance on Lebanon was close to “indifference.” He said that all attempts to find a “credible partner” in the country had come to nothing. It was clear that there was frustration in the UAE about the direction of politics in Lebanon and its lack of alignment with Gulf strategy, especially in the conflict with Iran.
The alliance between Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s party and Hizbullah has clearly sidelined other political parties having close relations with the Gulf countries. Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri and the coalition comprising forces opposing the Aoun-Hizbullah alliance have always been favoured by the Gulf. But recent developments in Lebanon have proved that the coalition is not capable of changing the facts on the ground.
Except for Oman, and to some extent Qatar, the GCC countries are determined to exert maximum pressure on Iran’s proxy groups in the region. With the resumption of negotiations between Tehran and Washington, probably soon, the escalation in Yemen and Lebanon might increase.
Some expect this to be the climax of tensions before a settlement of some sort is reached. The other scenario is a regional war in which Israel is involved, though the US is keen to avoid this. For the time being, the situation is a “wait and see” game testing the resolve of all the parties concerned.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly