George Kurdahi, Lebanese Minister of Information
George Kurdahi, Lebanese Minister of Information Image Credit: Al Ain Media UAE

For the second time in two weeks, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal ibn Farhan has stressed that his country wants nothing to do with Lebanon anymore, taking what many have described as a “diplomatic row” between the two countries into something far more severe and chronic.

The Saudi Minister blamed the problem on “political and economic corruption” in Beirut and on Hezbollah-dominance of the tiny Mediterranean country.

His most recent remarks on 13 November end whatever hope of a speedy rapprochement between Beirut and Riyadh, which many Lebanese had been hoping for, similar to what happened last May when Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe resigned, after he had made derogatory remarks against the kingdom.

This time, however, the scar is far deeper. The current crisis began in mid-October when Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, a television host-turned politician, made pro-Houthi remarks during a TV interview. Had he shown remorse, apologised, or stepped down then the crisis might have not snowballed so rapidly.

He refused to do any of that, however, only saying that his comments were made in August, one month before he became minister in the cabinet of Najib Mikati. He adamantly refused to apologise and so did his patron, Suleiman Frangieh, who insisted that Kordahi had done no wrong.

Then came remarks by Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, a protégé of President Michel Aoun and member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). On 2 November, he made it clear that Lebanese officialdom was incapable of limiting Hezbollah’s role while adding: “If they want the head of Hezbollah, then this is something we cannot offer.”

A new reality

Lebanese officials are now starting to digest the fact that Saudi Arabia is not returning to Lebanon, anytime soon. Politically that signals an Arab boycott of the country. Historically, Lebanon has relied on three sources of income for its livelihood, all of which have now come to a halt.

One was investment from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Second was revenue from Gulf tourism coming from the Gulf, third was from the country’s vibrant banking sector, which is now in shambles due to mismanagement by Lebanese officials. Apart from sending shipments of fuel to relieve Lebanon’s chronic electricity shortage, Iran cannot match the Gulf when it comes to investment or tourism, not even donations.

After withdrawing its ambassador from Beirut, Saudi Arabia imposed a ban on Lebanese goods, hitting around $250 million worth of exports, according to the Association of Lebanese Industrialists. Lebanese businessmen were expecting to export $500 million worth of goods to Saudi Arabia in 2022, but that too is now permanently on-hold.

Lebanese exports to Riyadh had dropped from $596.9 million in 2011 to $128.2 million in 2020. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the Lebanese economy shrank by 25% in 2020, due to political instability, with inflation reaching 85%.

This month, the Lebanese government was planning to resume talks with the IMF over a $9-10 billion loan aimed at reviving the country’s cash-strapped economy. If the cabinet of Najib Mikati collapses, then so would those talks since an interim premier is constitutionally incapable of negotiating on behalf of the Lebanese state.

Host of initiatives

Saudi Arabia famously hosted the 1989 conference that ended Lebanon’s brutal war. In the Taif Accords, it helped expand Muslim presence in the Lebanese parliament, putting them on equal footing with the country’s Christians, and also expanded powers of the Muslim prime minister.

Much of Saudi Arabia’s legacy in Lebanon was cemented by former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri, himself a dual national of both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, under whose era Saudi investment reached its apex in the 1990s.

Hariri was killed in 2005 and since then, Iranian influence has increased tenfold, mainly because no Lebanese figure has been able to protect Saudi interests in the country, not even his son and successor, Saad Al Hariri.

In 2006, Riyadh supported UNSCR 1701, calling for monopolising arms in the hands of the Lebanese Army and for all non-state players (in reference to Hezbollah) to stay away from the Lebanese south but such efforts were not very successful and thus unable to check the influence of Hezbollah.

Given the rift in relations between Riyadh and Beirut, it appears that Saudi Arabia had now decided to take a step back. Meanwhile the current economic and political situation in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s role in the same, get more accentuated.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.