Saudi Arabian row threatens to further damage Lebanon’s fragile economy

Criticism of Yemen war by information minister Kordahi leads to Saudi ban on all Lebanese imports

A Yemeni looks at a billboard of Lebanese information minister George Kordahi. Diplomatic relations between Lebanon and the Gulf states have soured since  Kordahi  criticised Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni war. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

A Yemeni looks at a billboard of Lebanese information minister George Kordahi. Diplomatic relations between Lebanon and the Gulf states have soured since Kordahi criticised Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni war. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

 

Beirut’s precarious economic situation has been exacerbated by a row with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies over criticisms of the Yemen war made by Lebanon’s information minister.

Shortly before his appointment in September, George Kordahi, a television personality, said in an interview the Saudi-Emirati war was “futile” and “must stop” and argued that the rebel Houthis were simply defending their homeland.

The Saudi foreign ministry responded by accusing Mr Kordahi, who refuses to step down, of bias toward the Houthis and insisted that his remarks were out of line with traditional Saudi-Lebanese relations.

Riyadh once had close ties with Lebanon’s Sunni politicians and provided financial aid and investment. Saudi and Gulf citizens formerly travelled to Lebanon’s cool mountains during the Arabian Peninsula’s simmering summer months, while wealthy Arabs bought luxury flats in Beirut’s high rise buildings and spent liberally while visiting the country.

This public and private involvement ended well before Lebanon’s acute politico-economic crisis began in October 2019.

Mr Kordahi’s remarks prompted the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and Bahrainis to recall ambassadors from Beirut and order Lebanese envoys to depart. Saudi Arabia has also suspended all imports from Lebanon.

While Riyadh had already banned Lebanese agricultural produce after 5.3 million illegal amphetamine Captagon pills were found in a shipment of pomegranates at Jeddah port, the extension of the ban to all other Lebanese goods could deal a major blow to the Lebanese economy.

Experts predict that the Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait could follow the Saudi example and bar Lebanese imports. This would cut by half Lebanon’s total export revenues. They express concern that Saudi Arabia and its allies could also limit the flow of remittances from tens of thousands of Lebanese living in the Gulf, which amount to 43 per cent of all expatriate transfers and replenish Lebanon’s tightly rationed hard currencies, according to the World Bank.

Limited visas

However, in a tweet prominent Emirati Abdulkhaleq Abdullah attempted to reassure the half-million strong Lebanese community in the Gulf that its members should not “fear” that they could suffer due to “the terrible and unprecedented deterioration in Gulf-Lebanese relations”.

He blamed the crisis on the militant Shia Hizbullah group, which he called “the Iranian party in Lebanon”.

Nevertheless, on Thursday, the Saudis limited visas issued to Lebanese to cover only humanitarian cases. Kuwait had already taken this step.

The Saudis, in particular, have accused the Lebanese government of failing to address drug smuggling and rein in Hizbullah, which partners with president Michel Aoun and his Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement, and backs the fragile government formed by Sunni prime minister Najib Mikati.

Mr Mikati has been reluctant to dismiss Mr Kordahi as he was nominated for his post by a small Maronite party and his removal could bring down the government, which took office in September after months of wrangling.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said Hizbullah’s “dominance” of the Lebanese political scene made “dealing with Lebanon pointless for the kingdom”.