Gulf States Withdraw Ambassadors to Lebanon Over Criticism of Yemen War

CAIRO — A diplomatic crisis between several wealthy Persian Gulf states and their tiny, cash-strapped Arab neighbor, Lebanon, expanded on Saturday as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait pulled their ambassadors from Beirut, one day after Saudi Arabia and Bahrain did the same.

The Gulf nations said they were withdrawing their diplomats in response to comments made by Lebanon’s information minister, George Kordahi, who called the war in Yemen a Saudi and Emirati “aggression” in a recent television interview.In addition to recalling their envoys, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain also expelled from their countries Lebanon’s ambassadors.

Although Saudi Arabia’s military campaign to oust the Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen has been widely condemned in the West and by its archenemy, Iran, its Arab neighbors have avoided antagonizing the kingdom, given its role as regional heavyweight and banker.

With a few stray comments from a minor minister, Lebanon once again found itself caught in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, underscoring just how vulnerable it is to the whims of its more powerful neighbors.

Mr. Kordahi is aligned with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political party and militia that dominates Lebanese politics

The weekend’s diplomatic spat comes on the heels of an already terrible year for Lebanon, a state in rapid financial and political decline. Seventy-eight percent of Lebanon’s population is estimated to be living in poverty amid an economic collapse that has enormously inflated prices, rendered the currency nearly worthless, swallowed people’s savings and caused near-continuous power cuts and fuel shortages. The country can ill afford further problems with its rich neighbors or threats to the foreign investments on which it relies.

Lebanese men flying flags from Saudi Arabia in Beirut in support of the kingdom on Saturday following comments by Mr. Kordahi.Credit…Bilal Hussein/Associated Press

Saudi Arabia was once an important source of financial support for Lebanon. The Saudi government contributed billions of dollars to keep the country in its orbit and Saudi citizens spent lavishly on investments and summer vacations. But the Saudi government withdrew that support several years ago as Hezbollah grew in prominence and the country came under Iran’s thrall.

“The current crisis is pure politics,” said Khaldoun el-Sherif, a political analyst in Lebanon. “The Saudis consider Lebanon as having fallen completely within the Hezbollah-Iran axis.”

Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati,issued a statement suggesting Mr. Kordahi resign to defuse tensions, but Mr. Kordahi said earlier this week that he would not step down. In May Lebanon’s foreign minister was forced to resign after suggesting that the predominately Sunni Gulf States contributed to the rise of the Islamic State terror group.

Despite the already strained relations, the diplomatic fracas triggered a crisis in Beirut. President Michel Aoun of Lebanon, recognizing the gravity of the Gulf States’ reaction, on Saturday called an emergency meeting with other Lebanese leaders, saying that he was eager to reestablish good relations with Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Aoun said that he was eager to reestablish good relations with Saudi Arabia. Fawzi Kabbara, Lebanon’s newly expelled ambassador to Riyadh, told Al Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper, that he remained hopeful that relations could return to normal if certain “demands” were met. It was unclear what those demands were.

Mr. Kordahi, the Lebanese minister whose comments kicked off the crisis, gave the television interview weeks before he was appointed minister, but it did not become public until several days ago. He said in the interview that Yemen’s Houthi rebels were “defending themselves” against “an external aggression,” adding that “homes, villages, funerals and weddings were being bombed” by the Saudi and Emirati coalition.

He called their military campaign in Yemen “futile” and said it was “time for it to end.”

A camp for internally displaced people in Marib in northeastern Yemen last week. A proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has gone on since 2015.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Saturday, the United Arab Emirates, the powerful, oil-rich Gulf state that has been Saudi Arabia’s biggest partner in the Yemen war, withdrew its ambassador to Lebanon and banned its citizens from traveling there. The decision came “in solidarity with the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in light of the unacceptable approach by some Lebanese officials toward the Kingdom,” an Emirati minister of state, Khalifa Shaheen al-Marar, said in a statement.

Earlier on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbor, Kuwait, recalled its ambassador to Lebanon and gave the Lebanese ambassador 48 hours to leave, its official news agency reported. The foreign ministry said Kuwait had done so because of the Lebanese government’s “failure” to “address the unacceptable and reprehensible statements against the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest” of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Critics of Saudi Arabia’s heavy handed maneuvering accused the kingdom of taking potshots at already wounded Lebanon.

“When a nonentity minister in Lebanon says something vaguely critical of Saudi Arabia, they overreact and engage in collective punishment, because Lebanon is weak and poor and it is easy to kick a horse when it is down,” Karim Traboulsi, the managing editor of The New Arab, a Pan-Arab publication, wrote on Facebook. “I hope that in my lifetime Lebanon becomes free and self reliant, because dignity is the most precious thing.”

Criticisms similar to those made by Mr. Kordahi have also come from Western politicians and advocacy groups, which accuse Saudi Arabia of causing thousands of civilian casualties, indiscriminately bombing civilian targets and prolonging a war that has dragged Yemen to the brink of famine, destroyed its infrastructure and gutted its economy.

A United Nations report in September charged both sides of the war — the Saudi-led coalition, which was supported by American military aid, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels — with violating international law by killing civilians. It said coalition airstrikes had killed or wounded at least 18,000 Yemeni civilians since 2015, while the Houthis shelled residential neighborhoods, camps for displaced Yemenis, markets and an airport.

Pressure has grown on Saudi Arabia to end the war, with President Biden stopping American military aid to the coalition in February. But the Houthi rebels rejected a cease-fire offer from the Saudis earlier this year and hostilities have continued, most recently centering on an area called Marib.

On Saturday, the casualty count grew again, with a car bombing at the airport in Aden, Yemen, that killed at least nine and wounded at least 29, according to a Health Ministry official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Shuaib al-Mosawa from Sana, Yemen.

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