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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Battle for Lebanon’s Arab Identity

Filed under: Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia

The Battle for Lebanon’s Arab Identity
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi (Screenshot, Arab News)

The latest skirmish in the battle for Lebanon’s Arab identity has caught an unprepared Hizbullah and its Iranian patron by surprise on an unexpected battlefield.

Georges Kordahi, a popular TV personality in the Arab world, is a member of the Lebanese “Marada” party (a Christian party aligned with Hizbullah and supportive of Syria’s President Assad). Even before he was appointed information minister in the Lebanese government, headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Kordahi granted an interview in which he criticized the Saudi and Emirati involvement in the war in Yemen and defended the Houthi fighters. After the interview aired last week, Saudi Arabia responded sharply, recalling its ambassador from Lebanon and directing the Lebanese ambassador to leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. In addition, the Kingdom declared that it would bar all agricultural imports from Lebanon and accused Hizbullah of exploiting these exports to smuggle drugs into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In one case, more than 5.2 million Captagon pills were hidden in a shipment of pomegranates.1

The Saudis froze all the assets of the Iranian-Hizbullah leading financial institution and “benevolent society,” Al-Qard al Hassan (the benevolent interest-free association) in Saudi Arabia, an organization under U.S. sanctions since 2007.

Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi defended the Houthis in the war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia in an interview held in August 2021 (Screenshot, Arab News)2
Pills of Captagon hidden in a consignment of “pomegranate” fruit
The Saudi Customs in Jeddah Islamic Port foiled an attempt to smuggle 5.3 million pills of Captagon hidden in a consignment of “pomegranate” fruit imported from Lebanon in April 2021. (Saudi Press Agency)

Moreover, Saudi officials have accused Hizbullah of trying to change Lebanon’s Arab identity by striving to expand Iranian hegemony and adopting the Iranian Shiite theocracy. The Saudi diplomatic moves were copied by Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Emirates, who declared their full support for the Saudi demarche and asked the Lebanese ambassadors to leave while recalling their diplomatic representatives from Lebanon.

A flowchart showing the Hizbullah and Iranian drug smuggling operation
A flowchart showing the Hizbullah and Iranian drug smuggling operation (Arab News)3

The fact that Kordahi’s interview was given before he became a government member was ignored by the Saudis. The Saudis looked at the Lebanese government as a French-Iranian co-creation. They took note of the accusations by Hizbullah leaders claiming that the Saudis have relations with the nationalist Christian Lebanese Forces and their chief commander, Samir Geagea. Furthermore, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, accused Hizbullah and Iran of being behind Kordahi’s declarations. In addition, he pointed at Hizbullah’s involvement in the war in Yemen in tandem with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, under the instructions of Iran. “Lebanon needs a comprehensive reform that restores its sovereignty, strength, and position in the Arab world,” Prince Faisal told Al Arabiya. “Hizbullah’s domination of the political system in Lebanon worries us and makes dealing with Lebanon useless.”4

The Saudi and Gulf States’ move has shaken the political establishment in Lebanon and divided it into:

  • those who demand the immediate resignation of the Minister of Information (the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Maronite Archbishop el-Rahi);
  • or accuse Hizbullah of trying to draw Lebanon into Iran’s political hegemony (former Prime Minister Saad Hariri);
  • or those who declare that Lebanon will not bow to Saudi Arabia at any cost (Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada party and members of Hizbullah).

In the meantime, France and the United States have intervened and asked Najib Mikati not to announce the resignation of his government even though the government barely met since its establishment two months ago. It has been paralyzed by Hizbullah, which threatened to leave the government if Judge Tariq Bitar is not fired from his mission to investigate the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020.

The United States even offered, according to the Lebanese press, to mediate between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in order to find a compromise that would solve the crisis.

The Saudi move bears heavy implications on the Lebanese scene, which has witnessed three developments since October:

  1. The gun battles in the Tayouni neighborhood of Beirut on October 14, 2021, with the ultimate demand by Hizbullah to subpoena and investigate Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces’ role in the bloody events, a demand that had no follow-up (typical Lebanese-style).
  2. The withdrawal of the Shiite ministers from the government as a protest meant to pressure the Prime Minister and the president to remove Judge Tarek Bitar from his investigation of the Beirut Port explosion; and
  3. the Saudi diplomatic move, which has become the center of attention of Lebanon’s political establishment. The possible results of the Saudi move are such that it has eclipsed all earlier events; in Lebanon, it is considered a game-changer.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Hizbullah carry a long history of feuding, especially since Hizbullah’s battles against Saudi allies in the Syrian civil war. Moreover, the animosity increased because of the Shiite militia’s involvement in subversive activities in Saudi Arabia. This hostility was exemplified through the Hizbullah local branch and its training and manning of missile and drone launches from Houthi-held strongholds against Saudi cities and military targets.

The Saudi move, considered a blatant anti-Iranian act, ignores the ongoing détente discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, described by Saudi and Arab observers as feckless.

Strong Actions against Lebanon

The Saudi and Gulf States sanctioning of Lebanon has far-reaching significance. In Saudi Arabia alone, more than 350,000 Lebanese reside and send remittances to their families back home. This financial support is how those remaining in Lebanon survive the catastrophic situation. Together with the other Lebanese relocated in the Gulf States, Lebanon receives more than $4.5 billion annually, half of which originates in Saudi Arabia. (The other half comes from Lebanese communities worldwide.) Freezing the assets of Qard al Hassan in Saudi Arabia and the decision of the UAE to prohibit the travel of Lebanese residents to and from Lebanon will prevent the transfer of funds to Shite accounts in Lebanon, designated – among other things – to assist Hizbullah. Banning the importation of all agricultural products from Lebanon is a far-reaching decision since these agricultural products represent 55.4% of all agricultural exports from Lebanon to the world markets. Lebanese exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to $282 million in 2019.5 The 600+ Lebanese business entities present in Saudi Arabia, with a total value of $125 billion, are not affected by the Saudi decision – at this point. If further punitive measures are adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council and Saudi Arabia, the collapse of the financial system in Lebanon is inevitable.

Where Saudi Arabia Does Best

Saudi Arabia has chosen to compete in a field where it excels – diplomacy. Hizbullah has been concentrating on the internal scene in Lebanon, assessing that no other political force could derail it from its goal of transforming Lebanon into an Iranian province. With its surprise move, Saudi Arabia has injected a new element into the equation: an open challenge to Hizbullah and Iran on the Arab identity of Lebanon. If Lebanon accepts Kordahi’s resignation or even apologizes to Saudi Arabia for the interview, it would be perceived as a Saudi victory. On the other hand, refusing to force the resignation of Kordahi would worsen the situation inside Lebanon and of those Lebanese in the Gulf States. It would signify a weakness Hizbullah cannot afford in the context of Lebanon’s power struggle.

A historical precedent is well-known in the Middle East: As a punitive measure against Yasser Arafat, who had sided with Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, the Gulf States deported 300,000 Palestinians residing within their borders. They left their residences and flocked to the West Bank and other refugees in the world.

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