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Lebanon Faces Crisis in Relations with Gulf Nations

FILE - An image of Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi is seen on a billboard in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 31, 2021. The billboard reads: "Yes, George, Yemen's war is futile."
FILE - An image of Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi is seen on a billboard in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 31, 2021. The billboard reads: "Yes, George, Yemen's war is futile."

Lebanon is experiencing a crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab supporters, whose trade and financial aid it desperately needs. Criticism by a Lebanese Cabinet minister over Saudi military involvement in Yemen is at the heart of a diplomatic dispute that is playing into a regional competition for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia expelled the Lebanese ambassador, recalled its envoy to Beirut and banned imports from Lebanon after comments were broadcast by Lebanon’s information minister, George Kordahi. Just before Kordahi became a Cabinet member in September, he defended Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who receive training from Hezbollah. He said Yemen was subjected to what he described as foreign aggression - an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia.

Gulf allies have responded by recalling their ambassadors from Lebanon and expelling Beirut’s envoys. The Arab League has expressed concern over the rapid deterioration of relations.

Kordahi is a member of a small Christian party allied with Shiite Hezbollah. Knowing his government is fragile, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged Kordahi to “put his patriotic sense above all else” to defuse the crisis.

Meanwhile, influential Catholic Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi and others view Kordahi’s comments and refusal to resign as damaging Lebanon’s national interests. Kordahi says the remarks were made before took up his government position.

Political analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib, with the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, told VOA that the Gulf states have had enough of Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon.

“Mikati was hoping so much that the French would be able to like twist the Gulf’s arm and get money from them. It’s not Kordahi only, it’s about dealing with this government that’s controlled by Hezbollah. Hezbollah won’t let Kordahi resign, unless they get something. If Kordahi just resigns, they will look weak,” Khatib said.

Analysts say Mikati faces an uphill task trying to reset relations with Gulf countries.

Trade and financial aid from the Gulf once tallied in the billions of dollars. Lebanon cannot expect the same from Iran. A shipment of Lebanese pomegranates bound for Saudi Arabia in spring, stuffed with more than 5 million amphetamine-type pills known as captagon, produced in the Hezbollah-run Bekaa Valley, put a stop to that lucrative trade, with Saudi Arabia banning all Lebanese fruit and vegetables.

Veteran Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has warned that Iran-backed groups stood to gain from Saudi Arabia’s pulling away from Lebanon, which is suffering from severe economic and political crises.

“Abandoning” Lebanon will make Hezbollah stronger, he recently told Dubai’s The National. Observers say that Tehran’s regional proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, are also jeopardizing a possible thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.