Diplomatic crisis sparks concern for Lebanese abroad

Row sparked by Lebanon's information minister creating uncertainty for businesses and families in the Gulf

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It took only four days for Mohammed to pack his bags and book a one-way ticket to Jeddah, leaving his life in Lebanon behind for the foreseeable future.

The Lebanese consultant has worked for a Saudi Arabia-based company for several years. He was renewing his contract and his residency permit when a diplomatic spat between Beirut and Riyadh pushed the kingdom to recall its ambassador, expel Lebanon’s representative and ban its citizens from travelling to the country.

“I hope we will not be taking a bullet for our corrupt leaders,” he said, pulling a heavy suitcase through Beirut airport's departure area on Thursday.

“Who knows how this will play out.”

He said he decided to leave for Saudi Arabia to renew his contract and residency there for fear that the diplomatic spat will escalate, jeopardising travel or employment in the kingdom for Lebanese citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Saudi nationals have work or family ties in the Gulf and Lebanon that they fear will be affected if Beirut does not take action to de-escalate the diplomatic row.

Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said in a televised interview two weeks ago that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are acting in self-defence against foreign attackers, prompting backlash from Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations that support Yemen's internationally recognised government.

Mr Kordahi has refused to apologise or resign. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun have said the comments do not represent the government.

Mr Mikati said he was working on a road map to resolve the crisis but stopped short of asking Mr Kordahi to resign.

The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait recalled their diplomats from Beirut last week.

Manama and the UAE joined Riyadh in calling on their citizens to leave Lebanon.

Fear of backlash

The crisis also prompted Saudi Arabia to ban all imports from Lebanon, an important lifeline for industrialists and farmers who rely on exports in a country that has suffered through two years of an economic meltdown.

Farmer Khodr Mhamad sits in the airport lobby, staring at the flight screens. He arrived three hours before his flight to Riyadh with his wife and daughter to be sure they did not miss their plane.

His daughter has found a well-paying job as a nurse in Riyadh. In her previous post at a Beirut government hospital, she was paid $66 a month, which did not even cover gas fees, he said.

“It’s very important for us to have good relations and trade with our Arab brothers,” Mr Mhamad said.

“Lebanon is now all alone.”

Mr Mhamad turned to agriculture to make a living after he retired from the army. He says his olive press business has suffered from the export ban and that he is furious at Lebanese politicians for failing to uphold good ties with Saudi Arabia.

Sit and talk. Keep talking until you find a resolution and if you can’t resolve it, stay in the boardroom until you find a solution that will keep both peoples, both nations happy
Amjad, Saudi national in Lebanon

Riyadh had banned produce imports from Lebanon in April after the kingdom thwarted an attempt to smuggle millions of Captagon pills, an illegal drug, inside a shipment of pomegranates.

Lebanese imports to Riyadh represented some $282 million and Gulf countries made up more than 30 per cent of all Lebanese exports in 2019.

Businesses and workers in Lebanon depend on the Gulf to survive, Mr Mhamad said, and added that the country can ill afford to be in Saudi Arabia’s bad graces.

“I think the government should resign immediately. They have failed us for the past 30 years — enough is enough,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is a major investor and trade partner for Lebanon, but the two countries also share cultural and human bonds. Saudi Arabia is home to a large Lebanese diaspora and tourists from the Gulf used to flock to Lebanon in the early 2000s, a time of relative prosperity for Beirut.

Family ties

The latest diplomatic crisis has added further strains on mixed families from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

Amjad is one of those people. The 55-year-old Saudi national is part Lebanese and currently resides in Beirut. He has stopped short of returning home despite the kingdom’s travel ban.

“I am waiting it out for now, but if the crisis escalates, I will pack my bags and leave,” he said, and added that he feared for his security.

He was born in Lebanon and said that he considers the country to be his second home. Over the past decade, he says, his relatives from the Gulf who used to travel to Lebanon have grown scared because of Hezbollah’s growing influence in the country and its anti-Saudi agenda.

The kingdom had also previously imposed a travel ban on citizens.

Amjad says he wants to see the leadership of both countries sit down and talk it out.

“Sit and talk. Keep talking until you find a resolution and if you can’t resolve it, stay in the boardroom until you find a solution that will keep both peoples, both nations happy,” he said.

He added that Lebanon could not afford to lose Riyadh’s support.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has said the kingdom is not interested in dealing with Beirut because Hezbollah now dominates political life.

The Iran-backed group provides support to the Houthi rebels, who have launched several missiles at the kingdom.

“Time is of essence here. Lebanon cannot drag this on, or you will lose an entire nation that was coming to you,” Amjad said.

Updated: November 07, 2021, 5:21 AM