Saudi Arabia has banned imports from Lebanon and expelled its ambassador in retaliation for criticism of its military intervention in Yemen by Beirut’s new information minister.
The move is a serious blow to the country, which is in the second year of a severe economic crisis that has pushed well over half the population below the poverty line.
Riyadh on Friday gave Fawzi Kabbara 48 hours to leave and recalled its ambassador from Beirut for consultations. Bahrain, a close Saudi Arabian ally, also expelled Lebanon’s ambassador.
The diplomatic crisis is the result of years of souring relations between the two countries that is rooted in the increasing power in Lebanon of Riyadh’s arch-rival and Iran’s ally Hizbollah, a paramilitary political party that has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and the US.
“Of course it’s [about] Hizbollah,” one senior Arab diplomat said.
Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs cited “damaging” comments made by Lebanese minister of information Georges Kordahi in August, before he took office, as well Lebanon’s failure to take measures it had demanded “to stop the . . . scourge of drugs from Lebanon” arriving in the Kingdom.
A television personality connected to Lebanon’s pro-Hizbollah president Michel Aoun, Kordahi described UAE and Saudi military intervention in Yemen as “an offensive” in an interview on Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera.
The video started to circulate again earlier this week on social media, triggering the diplomatic spat.
Saudi Arabia said Hizbollah had “control of all ports,” saying that the country had become “a launching pad for activities contrary to the interest of Lebanon and its people.”
It accuses Hizbollah of providing support and training to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who overthrew the Yemeni government in 2015.
Bahrain’s foreign affairs ministry cited “a series of unacceptable and offensive statements issued by Lebanese officials in recent times,” as the reason for expelling the ambassador.
Kordahi has said he would not resign over comments, but prime minister Najib Mikati late on Friday called for him to “take the appropriate decision” for the good of the nation, as he scrambled to appease a deep-pocketed potential ally.
Gulf investors were key in the reconstruction of Beirut after Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war ended in 1990, while the Gulf is an important job market for Lebanese workers who send vital remittances back home.
Saudi Arabia was Lebanon’s fourth-largest export market in 2019, the year that the economic crisis started and the latest for which data is available, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity which tracks global trade flows.
Exports to Saudi Arabia were worth $282m in 2019 and $200m in 2020, an important source of hard currency for Lebanon, whose crisis is partly due to years of running a current account deficit which amounted to 25 per cent of gross domestic product.
But this has been a torrid year for relations between the two nations, which hit a low point in 2017, when the-then prime minister Sa’ad Hariri was detained in Riyadh and forced to resign temporarily.
Saudi Arabian citizens are forbidden to travel to Lebanon and in April, Riyadh banned Lebanese agricultural goods, in retaliation for drugs being trafficked into Saudi Arabia in shipments of Lebanese fruit and vegetables.
Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister, Charbel Wehbe, resigned in May after linking the Gulf states to the rise of Islamist extremists Isis.
Cash-strapped Lebanon is desperate for international funding to help it recover from its debilitating economic depression, which the World Bank has said is, in terms of scale, likely to be one of the world’s worst in 150 years.
Mikati’s two-month old cabinet — formed in September after more than a year of political infighting — has not met for more than two weeks due to a stand-off over a judicial investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
The Arab League on Saturday called on Lebanon’s leaders to take steps to defuse the row, and on Saudi Arabia to reconsider the measures which it said could further harm Lebanon’s economy.