Saudi Arabia bans Lebanese imports and expels ambassador

Four Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have withdrawn their envoys from Lebanon, dealing the Mediterranean nation a severe blow as it grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades.

Saudi Arabia also banned Lebanese imports as the oil-rich Gulf states, which Lebanon had turned to in the past for financial support, pulled their diplomats and expelled Beirut’s representatives after the country’s information minister refused to apologise for criticism of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The Gulf states have become increasingly frustrated with Lebanon’s politics in recent years, worried about the rising influence of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militant movement that has political and paramilitary wings, as well as corruption and the government’s failure to push through reforms.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud accused Hizbollah of dominating Lebanon’s government. “Hizbollah’s hegemony over the political system in Lebanon worries us, and it makes dealing with Lebanon futile,” the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya broadcaster quoted him as saying.

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. On Saturday Kuwait gave the Lebanese chargés d’affaires 48 hours to leave, and the United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador and banned its citizens from visiting Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs had cited “damaging” comments made by Lebanese minister of information Georges Kordahi in August, before he took office, as well as Lebanon’s failure to take measures it had demanded “to stop the . . . scourge of drugs from Lebanon” arriving in the kingdom.

Cannabis harvesting in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Saudi Arabia says drugs are being trafficked in shipments of Lebanese fruit and vegetables © AFP/Getty Images

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, which Saudi Arabia and the United States designated as a terrorist group, 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 briefly detained in Riyadh and forced to resign temporarily.

Saudi Arabian citizens are forbidden to travel to Lebanon. 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 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.

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