Lebanese minister’s Yemen comments further strain ties with GCC

Lebanese gov’t has been desperate to rekindle strained relations with Gulf countries, as it reels from a crippling economic crisis.

Kordahi said his comments were personal opinions before becoming a minister [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi’s criticism of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels has further strained relations between Lebanon and Gulf countries.

Videos began circulating online this week of a television interview Kordahi did in early August, just over a month before joining the government, in which he said the Iran-aligned Houthis are “defending themselves … against an external aggression”. The former celebrity TV presenter also said the long-running war was “futile” and called for it to end.

The critical comments angered Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Riyadh-led military coalition. Over the past two days, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain all summoned their ambassadors, while the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – also comprising Qatar and Oman – condemned Kordahi’s remarks.

The game show host-turned-minister said in a news conference that his comments about the war in Yemen were “not partisan”, and that those were his personal opinions before becoming a minister.

“I put the interests of Lebanon above all,” he said. “And we should not remain prone to blackmail from anyone, not from states, nor embassies, nor individuals.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun, who both have pushed for improving ties between Beirut and Riyadh, quickly dismissed Kordahi’s comments and insisted they did not represent Lebanon’s policies.

“It is true that we disassociate from conflicts, but we don’t disassociate ourselves from any position that is in solidarity with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries,” Mikati said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia and the GCC were once key political allies and economic backers of Lebanon. But lately, they have positioned themselves more on the sidelines, alarmed by the growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government, observers say.

Lebanon, now reeling from an economic crisis that has plunged almost three-quarters of its population into poverty, is hoping to restore relations of old.

Some analysts have suggested the fallout from Kordahi’s remarks may further push the GCC away from Lebanon, especially while Iran and Saudi Arabia continue de-escalatory talks. However, Elham Fakhro, a visiting scholar at the Centre for Gulf Studies at Exeter University, said that was not the case.

“The decision by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to summon their ambassadors from Lebanon is a reminder that despite the broader atmosphere of de-escalation in the region, red lines have not changed,” Fakhro told Al Jazeera.

“Both states view the Houthis as an arm of Iranian influence in Yemen, and are not willing to tolerate clear expressions of support for the group from the Lebanese state, nor are they unwilling to take action when they see Lebanon straying too far away from their sphere of influence.”

Controversies and crises

However, the cash-strapped country continues to face several hurdles and setbacks in doing so. Kordahi’s remarks were the latest in a series of controversies over the past year alone.

Saudi Arabia designated Hezbollah’s financial institution Al-Qard Al-Hassan as a “terrorist entity” on Wednesday, just as they summoned their ambassador.

Last April, Saudi Arabia announced an indefinite ban on Lebanese produce and agricultural products, after foiling an attempt to smuggle over five million illegal amphetamine Captagon pills hidden in a shipment of pomegranates inside Jeddah Port.

The following month, then-caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe resigned after insinuating that Gulf countries were behind the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in a heated argument with Saudi lobbyist Salman al-Ansari on Alhurra TV.

After al-Ansari blamed Aoun for “handing over” Lebanon to Hezbollah, Wehbe said he would not be “insulted by a Bedouin” before storming off the studio.

Imad Salamey, an associate professor of Middle East political affairs at the Lebanese American University, said Lebanese politicians have been “reckless” with their comments.

“Irresponsible statements made by today’s politicians like George Kordahi and Hezbollah leaders are sure to jeopardise the country’s efforts to restoring relations [with the GCC],” Salamey told Al Jazeera. He said he feared that the economic consequences would be greater than delaying or losing financial assistance.

“It may threaten with retaliations against tens of thousands of Lebanese expats working in Gulf countries – George Kordahi was one of them when he used to run a TV show at [Saudi-owned] MBC,” Salamey said. “The Lebanese diaspora community provides the last remaining sources of remittance and economic support to tens of thousands of families in the country.”

The row has also exacerbated tensions among the ruling Lebanese parties. While Prime Minister Mikati, President Michel Aoun, and other officials quickly responded to pacify the situation, Hezbollah issued a statement praising Kordahi for making comments that were “brave” and “honourable”.

Hezbollah accused Gulf countries of violating Lebanon’s sovereignty by trying to pressure Kordahi to resign and instigating a “dark campaign” against them.

Yeghia Tashjian, an associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut, said Lebanon’s precarious position could further exacerbate internal tensions.

“Lebanese authorities are reacting to prevent criticism against Gulf states,” Tashjian told Al Jazeera. He explained that while this could indeed stifle freedom of speech, the authorities are protective of Lebanon’s “national interest in this critical situation”, which is not just related to the economy but also national security.

“Lebanon must not be dragged into regional conflicts,” he said. “This is beyond our limits, and the results would be catastrophic.”

Salamey echoed Tashjian’s sentiments, adding that Mikati faced compounding political crises while trying to put Lebanon on the path towards economic recovery.

“On one side he is struggling to contain divisions among the rank of his own government, and on the other side he is trying to convince the international and Arab community that his government is not controlled by Hezbollah,” Salamey said. “Evidently, he is failing on both fronts.”

Source: Al Jazeera