Lebanon’s isolation increases as Arab countries recall ambassadors

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Lebanon’s attempts to avoid state failure have received yet another blow as some Arab countries recalled their envoys from Beirut and expelled Lebanese ambassadors. This latest setback for the recently announced Lebanese government follows the revelation of previously recorded statements by Minister of Information George Kordahi criticizing the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and praising the Iranian-backed Houthi fighters. The government has refused to back down, providing fodder for those who have long suspected Iran and Hezbollah of holding Beirut hostage to their interests.

The comments by Mr. Kordahi have made him an instant celebrity across the Middle East, nowhere more so than in Houthi-controlled cities in Yemen, where, according to this report by Albawaba’s Riham Darwish, “Several billboards have appeared in the Yemeni capital saluting George Kurdahi and agreeing with his statements. … Local Yemenis in Sanaa have posted photos showing billboards in the city featuring Goerge Kurdahi’s photo along with the hashtag #نعم_جورج_حرب_اليمن_عبثية (Arabic for Yes George_the Yemen War is pointless). The photo was also shared on Twitter by the spokesperson of the Houthi movement, Mohammad Abdusalam Salah. Online conversations over the decision of installing these billboards suggested that it might be the Houthis defended by Kurdahi during his controversial remarks, especially that the Iranian-backed group has full control over Sanaa.”

Meanwhile, as this Tehran Times article shows, the Iranians have gone on the attack, accusing the Saudis of trying to put pressure on the incoming Lebanese government and leverage the incident for its own benefit: “Some believe that the Saudi moves against Lebanon were a long time coming and that Kordahi’s statements only provided the Saudis an excuse to move ahead with their punitive measures against Lebanon, knowing the crisis-stricken country can no longer bear more economic pressure. Saudi Arabia has turned its back on Lebanon ever since at least 2018, when they mounted pressure on then Prime Minister Saad Hariri to undermine Hezbollah’s sway. But when they failed to weaken Hezbollah, they started imposing harsh economic restrictions on Lebanon while refraining from giving any financial aid. Since then, pundits believe, the Saudis and their allies are pursuing a ‘freefall for all’ project. In other words, they seek to bring the Lebanese state to total collapse in a bid to undermine Hezbollah. The Kordahi episode, therefore, is only one step in that direction.”

Others, while not necessarily supporting such assertions, believe, nonetheless, that the harsh diplomatic response undertaken by the Saudis and their Gulf allies may backfire and strengthen Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon. That is the assessment offered by Mohanad Hage Ali, an analyst and fellow at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, in an interview published by Albawaba: “The new Saudi-Gulf escalation, Hage Ali said, will rather benefit Hezbollah. ‘These measures are impacting the population, further weakening the state and ironically could be benefiting Hezbollah: bringing Lebanon closer to the Iranian and Syrian regimes/axis,’ he said. … By imposing a ban on Lebanese imports, which reached $1.04 billion to Gulf Cooperation Council countries in 2020, many see the new Saudi measures as ‘punitive’ and harmful to the Lebanese population rather than to Hezbollah.”

However, most of the observers in the region agree that the ultimate responsibility lies with the Lebanese government for its inadequate response to the minister’s statements. For example, writing for Asharq Alawsat, Hazem Saghieh makes the case that, given the tense domestic and regional situation, Mr. Kordahi should have resigned immediately: “Freedom of opinion and speech is the right of Kordahi and anyone else, whoever they may be and whatever their opinion is. However, those with opinions like that of Kordahi should not be handed ministerial positions in countries like Lebanon. That is true for every country in the world, whether it is democratic or not: no country appoints someone known for an opinion that undermines their country’s supreme national interests. This principle applies particularly strongly given today’s circumstances, with international and regional polarization at its height, rendering the appointment of ministers with opinions like those of Kordahi akin to taking sides in a war.”

Al Arabiya’s Makram Rabah shines the spotlight on Lebanon’s political elite, who, according to him, have done little, if anything, to mitigate the diplomatic fallout from the incident. Rabah believes their inaction is likely to leave the country in an even weaker position than before, “revealing the level of hypocrisy of those who keep asking for Gulf money yet are too afraid to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty against the actions of Hezbollah and their lackeys. … The ongoing diplomatic crisis will not simply go away if Kordahi or even the Mikati government tenders a resignation. Lebanon will never regain its status as the golden child of the region, not only because the region has changed, but rather because the people of Lebanon have been too docile and accepting of leaders who have sold the country to Iran and still expect Gulf support – an unrealistic and delusional belief, to say the least.”

Judging by Ahmed Maher’s assertion in his recent National op-ed, Lebanon’s relationship with its Arab neighbors has been deteriorating for some time, with the Kordahi incident only the latest in a long line of grievances that Saudi Arabia and others harbor against Lebanon’s political leadership:Its chronic and systemic corruption, mismanagement of its economy over the past three decades and misallocation of resources have been an omnipresent fixture in the Arabic and international news recently. … Gulf officials have expressed frustration with the political setup in Lebanon, which has made Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, the most powerful paramilitary entity in the country. … Lebanon’s Gulf neighbours are disturbed by off-putting words from a minister, but their exasperation with the failed system in Lebanon is much deeper. The problems are too many to list, and the Lebanese people are pushed to the breaking point.”

The bad news for the Lebanese government is that it may be bleeding support not only internationally, but also at home. Dania Koleilat Khatib, writing for Arab News, suggests that many in Lebanon no longer think that the new Mikati administration has a mandate to govern: “The clash between Lebanon and the Gulf states is motivating growing numbers of Lebanese citizens to say that the present government does not represent them. Business communities in the region have been quick to condemn Kordahi’s comments. … The trend is toward growing domestic, as well as international, distancing from the Mikati government. The once-hopeful prime minister, who was banking on boosting his credibility with the international community to secure the funds from which he could build a base to reinvent himself and the political elite, now seems to be stuck. It is yet to be seen how he will take the setback: Will he go all in, or will he fold and resign?”

In the end, though, what Lebanon’s neighbors are really asking for is a decoupling of Lebanon’s political trajectory from that of Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Faisal J. Abbas, the editor in chief of Arab News, minces no words in demanding a Lebanese government strong enough “to stop Hezbollah from supporting the Houthis in their targeting of civilians in Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones, and to halt Hezbollah’s illicit drug trafficking into the Kingdom. … Let us be clear: Saudi Arabia is not the reason for Lebanon’s woes; Hezbollah is. Saudi Arabia did not assassinate Rafik Hariri, occupy Beirut, or store explosives in a civilian port — Hezbollah did. If Lebanese politicians cannot confront these truths, the very least they could have done is to convince their information minister of the sad reality: His days of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? are over, and the government of which he is a part — manipulated, hijacked and controlled by external forces — is now The Weakest Link.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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