Damascus: “We refuse any insult to Saudi Arabia” were the words of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, commenting on the diplomatic crisis that erupted last week due to pro-Al Houthi remarks made by his Information Minister George Kurdahi.
Mikati has been in power since September, and was trying hard to piece his country back together after years of economic collapse, financial meltdown, and an explosion at the port of Beirut that killed 220 Lebanese and tore down large parts of the city in August 2020.
The last thing he needed was a crisis with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE - three countries that have generously supported Lebanon since the end of its civil war in 1990. Mikati insisted Kurdahi’s remarks were “unacceptable” and “do not reflect views of the Lebanese government”. He also asked him to take “necessary steps” towards ending the crisis that he triggered single-handedly - a polite request for his resignation.
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What did Kurdahi say?
Kurdahi claims his remarks were made during an interview on the Doha-based Al Jazeera TV filmed on August 5, one month before his appointment as minister in the Mikati government. During the interview aired on October 25, he described the Yemen War as “absurd” and claimed that Al Houthis were acting in “self-defence”.
Riyadh recalled its ambassador Walid Al Boukhari from Beirut, while Bahrain and UAE followed suit. Back in Al Houthi-held cities of Yemen, billboards were raised in Kurdahi’s ‘honour’, although the Yemeni ambassador to Beirut registered an official complaint with the Lebanese Foreign Ministry.
Kurdahi, a television host-turned politician, had built his fame and fortune through the Saudi channel MBC, where he worked for years on an Arabic version of the show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ MBC has also joined in the boycott of Lebanon, closing its offices and studios in Beirut.
Changes in GCC’s approach
“The Lebanese Government does not seem to need any foes as its members are perfectly capable of harnessing one diplomatic crisis after another,” said Josephh Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh and a former columnist for Gulf News.
Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “What the Aoun-Mikati-Berri triumvirate misses are the changes that occurred and are continuing in the Gulf in general and in Saudi Arabia in particular. Gulf states, including Oman and Qatar, will not longer play the blame game. Those days are over and future ties are problematic and will go from bad to worse unless Hezbollah backs down.
Kurdahi’s stance and internal Lebanese politics
Unsurprisingly, Hezbollah came out in support of the minister. The Iran-backed political party and heavily armed militia has supported Al Houthis and its leaders have praised what they called the “courageous and honest position” of Kurdahi.
Similar support was extended by Kurdahi’s patron Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Christian Marada Movement, who nominated him for the Information Ministry last September. Frangieh is a ranking member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition, and is planning to run for Lebanon’s presidential election in October 2022. He needs Hezbollah’s support to make it to Baabda Palace and quickly came out with a statement, saying that Kurdahi had offered to resign, but said that he refused his resignation “because he had committed no wrong”.
Aoun plays it safe
Hezbollah’s ally, President Michel Aoun, came out with a vague statement, claiming that he was keen on maintaining “the best brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia”. He did not condemn Kurdahi and nor did he call for his resignation. Nor did his son-in-law Gibran Basil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who only called for “mutual respect” between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, based on “institutional cooperation and mutual interests.”
Last May, the FPM had triggered a similar crisis with Saudi Arabia, through then-Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe, a protégé of President Aoun. He went on television criticising Gulf states using derogatory language, which triggered an angry response from Saudi Arabia that ended with his resignation.
Kurdahi faces internal criticism
Other Lebanese politicians, however, are furious with Kurdahi.
“Enough disasters” tweeted prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, adding: “Sack this minister who is destroying our relations with the Arab Gulf, before it is too late.”
The Future Movement echoed a similarly tough statement, while its leader, ex-prime minister Saad Hariri described Kurdahi’s remarks as “irresponsible,” saying that they were dragging Lebanon “to hell.”
Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces made a similar comment, claiming that severing Lebanon’s relations with the Gulf was a “catastrophe like no other”. Geagea has steadily been positioning himself as a staunch opponent of Hezbollah in Lebanese domestics, now calling on Kurdahi to step down.
Meanwhile, former chief of internal security General Ashraf Rifi went further, saying: “Lebanon is paying a high price for Iranian occupation. We demand the sacking of Kurdahi and we salute both Saudi Arabia and Yemeni legitimacy (in reference to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi).”
He added: “No matter what they do (in reference to Iran and Hezbollah), Lebanon will remain Arab.”