For the second time this year Lebanon is facing a backlash from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states following statements by a cabinet member criticising the regional policies of Riyadh and its Gulf allies.
In May, less than a year after being appointed, Charbel Wahbeh resigned as Lebanon’s foreign minister after blaming affluent Arab Gulf countries for the wide-spread presence of Islamic State (IS) in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. Following Wahbeh’s resignation, relations between Beirut, Riyadh, and Riyadh’s Gulf allies, returned to the tepid state they have been in since 2017, when France intervened to contain tensions between Riyadh and Lebanon’s then prime minister, Rafik Al-Hariri.
Now, just as Lebanon’s Najib Mikati government is attempting to reverse the country’s seemingly intractable economic crisis, Arab Gulf anger has been reignited after Lebanese Minister of Information Georges Kurdahi criticised Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their handling of the war in Yemen.
Though Kurdahi made his remarks on a TV programme that was recorded in August, before he became a minister, the programme was only broadcast last month. Though Kurdahi subsequently attempted to defuse the situation by insisting his statements did not reflect the position of the government, he has refused to appease Riyadh by tendering his resignation.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah, which backs Kurdahi, has threatened to pull Shia ministers from the cabinet if the minister of information is forced to resign.
Following two weeks of diplomatic squabbling, which has included expelling Lebanese ambassadors from several Gulf capitals and suspending economic relations with Beirut, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan finally announced that Riyadh has no interest in dealing with the “Hizbullah-dominated” Mikati government.
Saudi Arabia, which accounts for 8.25 per cent of Lebanon’s $3.54 billion worth of exports, has announced a halt to trade. If Riyadh follows through on the stoppage, says economist Paul Abi Nasr, the crisis in Lebanon’s industrial sector can only worsen. And while other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which account for half of Lebanese exports, have not taken similar measures, Abi Nasr is concerned that Lebanon has no alternative to the GCC market.
On Monday, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib protested against the “harsh” Saudi reaction, arguing the Lebanese government was in no position to reign in Hizbullah’s regional influence, including its support for the Iranian-aligned Houthis who have engaged in a seven-year-long war with the Saudi-led coalition.
The idea of a wholesale resignation of the Mikati government is strongly opposed by international powers that fear another extended political vacuum will only exacerbate Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis.
While Bou Habib has called for dialogue to resolve the crisis, Riyadh has shrugged off his appeal. Informed Western diplomats in the region say, however, that talks between the Saudi foreign minister and his American counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 on Sunday aimed to get Riyadh to soften its position.
The diplomatic crisis is unfolding just as the US and its European allies are preparing to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, and while on-again-off-again Omani hosted Saudi-Iranian talks over resuming normal relations continue.
An informed Arab diplomat said that Oman, in cooperation with Qatar, is involved in “a process of slow diplomacy that aims to find a compromise”. Despite the GCC secretariat joining the criticism of Kurdahi’s statements, neither Qatar nor Oman is backing diplomatic or economic measures against Lebanon.
According to the same diplomat, Qatar and Oman are also talking to Hizbullah and Iran about a compromise that would allow for “the eventual withdrawal of Kurdahi from the government” and his replacement with someone acceptable to Hizbullah.
On Monday, speaking from Glasgow where he was attending the UN summit on climate change, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamed said he will dispatch his foreign minister to Beirut promptly to explore ways out of the crisis.
On Tuesday, Mikati made an unscheduled trip to Glasgow to meet with Bin Hamed, the president of France, the prime minister of Kuwait and the foreign minister of the US, to discuss possible exits.
Arab and Western diplomatic sources agree that mediation will be difficult, arguing that while the Saudis might be willing to reach a compromise with Iran, in view of the US and European position towards Tehran, they are determined to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.
According to a Gulf analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity, Saudi Arabia thinks Iran is still following an aggressive policy, “supporting terrorist groups in the region like the Houthi militia in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon.”
A Gulf-based Western diplomat characterised the latest spat between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as part of Riyadh’s continuing attempts to contain Iran’s regional influence, adding that, in the absence of substantial Gulf aid to Lebanon, it is hard to see how the pressure will play out to Riyadh’s benefit.
Journalist Tony Boulos argues that Hizbullah has been trying to use receding Gulf financial influence to detach Lebanon from its Arab context and align it firmly with Iran.
According to an informed Arab diplomat who spoke from New York, to properly understand the Saudi-Iran, and the UAE-Iran, showdown, “it is important to take on board that the Saudis are hypersensitive about their management of the war in Yemen.”
“It goes without saying that the Saudi-led coalition is battling to push back Iranian influence,” he said, noting that while the Saudis and Emiratis have come under increasing pressure over the humanitarian impact of the war, “the Iran-supported Houthis have so far escaped such criticism.”
The diplomat pointed out that last month, in the UN General Assembly, over 30 Western countries launched “an aggressive diplomatic offensive against Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the war in Yemen”, though Saudi Arabia and the UAE pushed back with the support of Arab countries, including Egypt.
The broadcast of Kurdahi’s statements and the UN General Assembly incident coincided, something which, the diplomat suggested, combined with Kurdahi’s refusal to apologise or resign, could account for the ferocity of the Saudi reaction.
Ibrahim Awad, professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo, argues that this latest diplomatic episode underlines the need for a new political system in Lebanon capable of shielding the country from power struggles between regional and international players.
“There are problems with the state system in Lebanon and resolving them will remain very difficult given the fragmentation of the country’s political parties and the overall regional situation.”
While Lebanon will emerge from the current diplomatic crisis sooner or later, says Awad, the links between Lebanon’s political players and their regional and international allies urgently need to be addressed.
Reporting by Dina Ezzat in Cairo, Rita Boulos Chahwan in Beirut, and Ahmed Mostafa in Dubai
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly