A televised commentary by a game show host turned cabinet minister in Lebanon about the war in Yemen has taken the country’s crisis with Saudi Arabia to new depths.
Anger over George Kordahi’s comments prompted the Persian Gulf countries to take measures that further isolate Lebanon and threaten to divide their new coalition government, tasked with stemming the country’s economic collapse.
It is the latest escalation in the long-running rivalry in Lebanon between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tensions have raged for years over the dominant role in Lebanon of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
But what is really behind Saudi Arabia’s irate response and what does it mean for the already besieged Lebanon?
The immediate spark was comments from Kordahi, who had gained popularity in the Arab world for hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on a Saudi-owned television network.
During a mock parliament broadcast online last week, Kordahi answered questions from an audience of young people from the region. In a response, he called the war in Yemen “absurd” and said that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have not attacked anyone and have the right to defend themselves.
The online show was recorded about a month before Kordahi was appointed Minister of Information in the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, formed in September. Kordahi was appointed by a mainly Christian party allied with Hezbollah.
Saudi officials criticized his comments as “offensive” and biased towards the Houthis. Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthis, who a year earlier took control of the capital, Sanaa, and northern Yemen.
Most commentators have said they believe Kordahi’s comments were a pretext for the Saudis to vent their frustration over Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
The Saudis know what they don’t want Iranian influence to increase in Lebanon, but they don’t know what to do about it, said Joseph Bahout, research director at the American University of Beirut.
Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally of politicians in Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, who elect the prime minister under the country’s sectarian system. But the kingdom never transformed the divided community into a powerful political representative in the same way that the Shiite Hezbollah, with its powerful armed force, became Iran’s staunch ally in Lebanon.
Particularly since the 2005 assassination of its most powerful ally, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the kingdom has lost its tools of influence.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known for his assertiveness, some say its reckless foreign policy, Saudi Arabia took sporadic steps to try to impose its will, but was unable to develop a cohesive strategy or find new well-entrenched allies. He could only watch as Hezbollah and its allies came to dominate the more recent Lebanese governments.
The incident failed. Hariri returned home and revoked his resignation, supported by Hezbollah and its allies. He lost the Saudi backing.
Relationships have been cold ever since. Last spring, the Saudi authorities banned imports of all Lebanese products on allegations that they were used for drug smuggling.
More recently, Riyadh refused to endorse Mikati as prime minister due to his coalition with Hezbollah. The Saudis found themselves alone when Washington and Paris voiced their support for Mikati, after Lebanon had been without a government for more than a year.
The Saudi measures are a severe blow to the new Mikati government.
The import ban means the loss of millions of dollars in desperately needed foreign exchange. Any further escalation could undermine the jobs of more than 350,000 Lebanese in the Persian Gulf states who send home millions in remittances.
Mikati and other officials have called on Kordahi to resign from the cabinet, but it is not clear that that would resolve the gap.
Hezbollah has strongly supported the minister, saying his resignation will not solve what they called “extortion” to force Lebanon to change its foreign policy.
It all portends more internal divisions in a government already paralyzed by the investigation into the massive explosion at the Beirut port last year that killed more than 200 people.
In a WhatsApp message to his cabinet read on local television stations, Mikati said that the country is “on the edge of a precipice.”
He flew to Glasgow to seek French and American mediation, but his options are limited.
“We know they are upset. We know they do not want such a strong Hezbollah government,” Bahout said of the Saudis. “We know that they know that we cannot have a government without Hezbollah.”
“It’s kind of a completely blocked and stagnant situation,” he added.