The oil-rich kingdom has called back its ambassador from Lebanon, citing Iran-backed Hezbollah’s increasing influence in political affairs.
Lebanon’s fraught relations with Saudi Arabia face another test after Riyadh expelled the Lebanese ambassador over the weekend.
In solidarity with the kingdom, its Gulf allies, including Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE, have also kicked out Lebanese diplomats and called back their envoys.
The diplomatic row erupted after Lebanon’s information minister George Kordahi made on-air remarks holding the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance responsible for the years-long war in Yemen.
Yemen and Hezbollah at centre of the crisis
Kordahi made the controversial comments in August before joining a new government, which was formed in September as part of a complicated political compromise.
But the footage of his interview given to an Arabic-language network began circulating on social media a few days back, prompting an angry reaction from Riyadh.
A former TV celebrity who hosted the popular Arab version of Who Wants to be Millionaire show, Kordahi belongs to the Christian Marada party, which is closely allied with Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia views Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation responsible for training Shia Houthi militia in Yemen.
In a CNBC interview, Saudi Arabia’s foriegn minister Faisal bin Farhan said that the diplomatic row wasn’t a ‘crisis’. Instead, he blamed the issue on Hezbollah’s ever-increasing interference in Lebanese state’s affairs.
“I think we have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive and not helpful with Hezbollah's continuing dominance of the political scene,” said Farhan.
“So for us, it is broader than just the comments of one minister, it is more an indication of the state that Lebanon is in.”
Not the first time
A similar episode played out in May when Lebanese caretaker foreign minister Charbel Wehbe blamed Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners for creating Daesh. That statement led to an intense backlash, and Wehbe soon had to resign.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation while visiting Saudi Arabia in 2017 also underscored the influence Riyadh had on Lebanon’s Sunni leaders.
Hariri was reportedly held hostage and forced to tender his resignation because the Saudi leadership wasn’t happy with his handling of Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s current government, led by businessman-turned-politician Prime Minister Najib Mikati, is in a tighter spot than Hariri when dealing with the Saudis.
Years of financial turmoil has nearly devastated Lebanon’s economy. Runaway inflation has made people poorer; fuel shortages cause frequent blackouts, people don’t have jobs, and the country has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid.
On his part Mikati has tried to contain the situation, saying that Kordahi’s remarks do not reflect the government's official stance.
He has also asked Kordahi to do what’s best in the national interest - a hint that Kordahi should resign. But so far, the information minister has refused to do so.
Mikati’s government, which took office in September, is already facing a set of problems from crucial coalition partners, including Hezbollah-aligned politicians.
Under Lebanon’s constitution, three top government positions of the president, prime minister and speaker must be split between a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim and a Shia Muslim.
Such a system often results in a weak coalition government where different arms of government try to get funds and jobs for their own constituents rather than agreeing to a single national agenda.
In October, Beirut turned into a battlefield where armed fighters used rockets and heavy weaponry against each other over a tussle involving the investigation of the Beirut port blast last year in which more than 200 people were killed.
Too much dependence
In the backdrop of internal issues, Prime Minister Mikati will be hard-pressed to find a quick settlement with the Saudis.
Along with expelling the Lebanese ambassador, Riyadh has banned the import of Lebanese Agri produce such as lettuce and grapes, which are Mediterranean nations key exports to the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among Lebanon’s top trading partners. If the diplomatic setback translates into a wider economic blockade, then Beirut can end up in a serious crisis.
One of the key reasons for economic turmoil is Lebanon's large current account deficit that can be filled when foreign exchange comes into the country in the shape of export earnings, investments, loans or remittances.
More than 300,000 Lebanese expats work in Saudi Arabia from where they send home money - a vital infusion, especially during difficult times.
Remittances account for nearly 19 percent of Lebanon’s GDP - most of those coming from the Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia helped pump billions of dollars after the 15-year civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990.
Since the early 2000s, Saudi Arabia has come to Lebanon’s rescue on multiple occasions. For instance, after the 2006 war with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait together deposited $1.5 billion in Lebanon's central bank.