How will the Lebanese minister’s comments on Yemen affect ties with the GCC?

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 the Gulf countries.

Videos of a television interview that Kordahi did in early August, just over a month before joining the government, began circulating online this week in which he said that the Houthis aligned with Iran are “defending themselves … against a external aggression “. The former celebrity television host also called the long-running war “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 summoned their ambassadors, while the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes Qatar and Oman, condemned Kordahi’s comments. .

The game show host-turned-minister told a press conference that his comments on the war in Yemen “were not partisan”, and that those were his personal views before he became minister.

“I put Lebanon’s interests above all else,” he said. “And we should not be prone to being blackmailed by anyone, not by states, not embassies, not individuals.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun, who have pushed to improve 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 ourselves from the conflicts, but we do not 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 further on the sidelines, alarmed by the growing influence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government, observers say.

Lebanon, now recovering from an economic crisis that has plunged nearly three-quarters of its population into poverty, hopes to restore the relationships of yesteryear.

Some analysts have suggested that the fallout from Kordahi’s comments may further alienate the GCC from Lebanon, especially as Iran and Saudi Arabia continue de-escalation talks. However, Elham Fakhro, a visiting scholar at the University of Exeter’s Center for Gulf Studies, said that was not the case.

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

“Both states see the Houthis as an arm of Iranian influence in Yemen and are unwilling to tolerate clear expressions of support for the group by the Lebanese state, nor are they willing to take action when they see Lebanon straying too far from their homeland. sphere of influence. “

Controversies and crises

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

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

Last April, Saudi Arabia announced an indefinite ban on Lebanese agricultural products and agricultural products, after foiling an attempt to smuggle more than five million illegal Captagon amphetamine pills hidden in a shipment of grenades inside the port of Jeddah.

The following month, then-Acting Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe resigned after hinting that the Gulf countries were behind the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in a heated discussion 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 leaving the study.

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

“The irresponsible statements made by today’s politicians like George Kordahi and Hezbollah leaders will surely jeopardize the country’s efforts to restore relations. [with the GCC]Salamey told Al Jazeera. He said he feared the financial consequences would be greater than delaying or losing financial assistance.

“It can threaten retaliation against tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates working in Gulf countries. George Kordahi was one of them when he used to direct a television show in [Saudi-owned] MBC, ”Salamey said. “The Lebanese diaspora community provides the last remaining sources of remittances and economic support to tens of thousands of families in the country.”

The dispute has also exacerbated tensions between the ruling Lebanese parties. As Prime Minister Mikati, President Michel Aoun and other officials responded quickly to pacify the situation, Hezbollah issued a statement praising Kordahi for making “courageous” and “honorable” comments.

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

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

“The Lebanese authorities are reacting to avoid criticism of the Gulf states,” Tashjian told Al Jazeera. He explained that while this could stifle freedom of expression, the authorities protect the “national interest of Lebanon in this critical situation”, which is not only related to the economy but also to 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 aggravating political crises as she tried to put Lebanon on the path to economic recovery.

“On the one hand, he is struggling to contain divisions between the ranks of his own government, and on the other, he is trying to convince the international and Arab community that his government is not controlled by Hezbollah,” Salamey said. “Obviously, it is failing on both fronts.”

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