Nearly one week into one of Lebanon’s worst diplomatic crises with the Gulf in years, a leaked audio recording of Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib has bluntly exposed Lebanon’s most pressing question: what can it do to satisfy Saudi Arabia?
The crisis has been blamed on pro-Houthi statements made by Information Minister George Kordahi.
“If we sack Kordahi, what will we get from the kingdom? Nothing … they’ll ask for more,” Mr Bou Habib said, quoted by Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz. He played down the kingdom’s significant history of providing aid to Lebanon and described Iran-backed Hezbollah as "a disease.”
The daily wrote that Mr Bou Habib’s words, which were recorded during a meeting with Lebanese journalists, revealed his “hatred” towards Saudi Arabia. Mr Bou Habib responded in a statement that Okaz had published “fragmented and erroneous quotes”.
The diplomatic crisis puts in jeopardy the government of Najib Mikati, which is less than two months old and already grappling with political tension and the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Aired on October 25, Mr Kordahi’s comments prompted Saudi Arabia to ban imports from Lebanon and withdraw its diplomatic staff from the country. The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait are making similar moves.
Lebanese officials fear that Saudi Arabia might introduce more punitive measures by preventing the large Lebanese community living in the kingdom from sending remittances to their families back home, where nearly 80 per cent of the population is poor.
Mr Kordahi, who is supported by Lebanon’s pro-Iran camp, is refusing to quit, putting the Prime Minister, Mr Mikati, under intense pressure. If Mr Kordahi keeps his job, the prime minister’s Sunni Muslim base will widely regard him as a hostage of Hezbollah and call on him to resign, said Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.
Lebanese officials are intensely debating what to do and most of them refrain from speaking to the press out of fear of worsening the crisis. “The situation is quite critical,” said one high-ranking civil servant before Mr Bou Habib’s leaks were published. “I think those who are supporting Kordahi want something in exchange for his resignation,” he said, without clarifying further.
For Saudi Arabia, Mr Kordahi’s departure would make no difference, said Saudi Arabia analyst Ali Shihabi. “The kingdom will not take any active measures to harm Lebanon, like taking any action against its Lebanese residents. It has made that very clear,” said Mr Shihabi, who sits on the advisory board of the Neom city megaproject.
“At the same time, it will not support in any manner a state captured by Hezbollah that is actively participating against the kingdom in Yemen war,” he told The National, echoing often-heard accusations by Riyadh that Hezbollah supports the Houthi militant group.
The Houthis this week erected billboards depicting Mr Kordahi in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.
Mr Mikati’s options are limited, said Mr Bahout. “Saudi Arabia does not want Hezbollah to have influence in Lebanon, but realistically, you can’t have a Lebanon without Hezbollah. So what is exactly the midway that they are ready to accept? If we offer Kordahi’s head, will it be enough to go back to the situation that was prevalent before?”
Created in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah operates both as a normal political party in Lebanon and as a powerful regional militia. Because it is the only local political party to be legally armed, officially to fight Israel, Hezbollah’s clout in Lebanon extends further than others. In 2008, attempts at dismantling its telecoms networks resulted in days-long street clashes in Beirut.
Saudi Arabia poured money into Lebanon for decades, but relations turned sour in the past years as Riyadh viewed Iran’s expanding influence in the country with hostility. Regional tension flared in late 2017 when departing prime minister Saad Hariri made a surprise resignation in Saudi Arabia. It prompted accusations from Lebanese officials that his resignation was forced, which the kingdom denied.
Should Lebanon now succeed in defusing tension, the most realistic scenario would be a return to the previous standoffish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Mr Bahout said.
“I don’t think that Mikati will take the risk of resigning because the US and France are probably advising him not to,” he said. French diplomatic sources previously told The National that French President Emmanuel Macron will send a “message of appeasement” to Gulf countries regarding Lebanon.
“But at the same time he won’t be able to work as long as the crisis is there because he doesn’t want to antagonise what remains of his personal ties with the Gulf. It’s a very dire situation,” said Mr Bahout.