Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi whose remarks on the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s war sparked a row with Gulf countries that exacerbated Lebanon’s multiple crises resigned on Friday.
After over a month of negotiations among Lebanese political factions and diplomatic efforts to mend the friendship with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Kordahi, speaking during a press conference, said he hoped this decision “could open a window… towards improved bilateral ties” with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
“I decided to give up my ministerial position because Lebanon is more important than me and I do not accept to be used as a reason to harm the Lebanese in the Gulf countries, because the interests of my country and my loved ones are above my personal interests,” the minister told the press in a much-anticipated announcement.
At the end of October, Saudi Arabia and several members of the Gulf Cooperation Council withdrew their envoys and halted trade with Lebanon. The move came after comments made by Kordahi in an interview aired on Al Jazeera condemning Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict with Yemen and defending the actions by the Iran-backed Houthis. The Interview was recorded in August, a month before the former host of the Arab franchise of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” show was appointed Minister of Information in Beirut.
Analysts in Beirut say that, as late as it comes, Kordahi’s resignation serves as an olive branch from the Lebanese government to the Saudis and other Gulf countries, claiming that they are serious about repairing the fractured relations. The announcement coincided with a visit to the Gulf by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has spearheaded international efforts to help Lebanon out of its worst-ever economic downturn.
Kordahi said the resignation, which he had initially ruled out, became inevitable earlier this week when he met Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“I understood from Prime Minister Najib Mikati… that the French want my resignation before Macron’s visit to Riyadh because it could maybe help them start a dialogue with Saudi officials over Lebanon and the future of bilateral ties,” Kordahi told reporters, as quoted by AFP.
Michael Young, senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center and longtime analyst of Lebanese and regional political developments, says that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Kordahi’s resignation.
“This was already in response to a French condition but it was also probably a response to a Hezbollah condition,” Young told NOW. “Perhaps it was some kind of loosening on the Saudi’s side when it comes to Lebanon. Had the Saudis not given anything, it’s unlikely that Kordahi would have resigned,” he pointed out.
The olive branch
The diplomatic crisis first began when an interview with Kordahi recorded in August aired months later.
Saudi Arabia was the first to announce that it was expelling the Lebanese ambassador in Riyadh, and that they were recalling theirs from Beirut.
Soon after, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Yemen followed suit.
Analysts were quick to point out that these actions from the Gulf were far too extreme to be solely in response to comments made before the former TV star was even selected to be part of Lebanon’s new government.
“The distrust runs much deeper than the comments of a minister,” Kristof Kleemann, director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s Beirut office, told NOW. “This was kind of a pretext for the Saudis back then to implement the measures that they took. The Saudi foreign minister said that.”
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said himself that this was about Hezbollah’s expanding influence in Lebanon.
It’s a step that was necessary but certainly not sufficient to have the possibility of an improvement of relations. Definitely, it’s not going to change very much on its own. There is a process that would have to be in place and this is a very first step that shows a Lebanese desire to improve relations.
“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, and with what we perceive as a continuing reluctance by this government and Lebanese political leaders in general to enact the necessary reforms, the necessary actions to push Lebanon in the direction of real change,” the Saudi minister told CNBC.
Not many expected the Lebanese government to immediately drop the hammer on Hezbollah, especially given that the majority of the government is affiliated with the armed group.
However, many noted that Kordahi’s resignation would be the absolute minimum that the government could do to try and patch things up with the Gulf.
Despite taking a month to happen, his resignation eventually came.
“His resignation was a first step,” Young explained. “It’s a step that was necessary but certainly not sufficient to have the possibility of an improvement of relations. Definitely, it’s not going to change very much on its own. There is a process that would have to be in place and this is a very first step that shows a Lebanese desire to improve relations.”
Kleemann agreed that, while Kordahi resigning is important for trying to better relations with the Saudis, it is unlikely to change much in the long run.
“They might reconsider some of the measures that they have implemented like the export ban,” Kleemann said. “But I don’t think that relations between the Gulf states and Lebanon would go back to normal as they were before 2017 or a huge financial transfer would happen from the Gulf states towards Lebanon.”
Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, added that while it will not solve the crisis it will help smooth things over with the Gulf.
“This kind of solves the impasse that we are seeing,” he told NOW. “Kordahi resigns and this will kind of push for a truce with the Gulf region. So there will not be any more escalation on the Gulf side of things.”
Relations are bound to remain sour
France’s Macron expressed hope that the resignation could open some doors and lead to the end of the diplomatic crisis.
“I remain cautious, but my wish is… to be able to re-engage all the Gulf countries in their relationship with Lebanon,” the French president told reporters while in Dubai.
Even though there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to renormalize relations with the Gulf, Lebanon could see some of the tough measures taken by the Gulf lifted.
One of the most often mentioned is the ban on agricultural imports from Lebanon, but Young is quick to point out that the ban has more to it than just a recent punitive measure, and has more to do with curbing the smuggling of amphetamine tablets, more commonly known as Captagon, into the Gulf.
Young puts forth that one of the most likely scenarios that Lebanon might see is the return of the Gulf’s ambassadors to Beirut.
The only possibility for the relations between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and Lebanon to go back on track on a significant level would be one after an election where Hezbollah does not play a role in the future government. I don’t see that as very realistic but I think that would be the only way to go back to a real normalization of relations.
While that is helpful in thawing the icy relations, it is still a long way off from normalization, something that is likely to occur only if the government curbs Hezbollah’s influence and power in Lebanon.
Both Young and Kleemann believe that this is pure fantasy.
“Obviously, Hezbollah is not going to suddenly say ‘No, we’re going to give up and Iran as well,’ Young stated. “That’s not going to happen.”
“The only possibility for the relations between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and Lebanon to go back on track on a significant level would be one after an election where Hezbollah does not play a role in the future government. I don’t see that as very realistic but I think that would be the only way to go back to a real normalization of relations,” Kleemann added. “Believing that the role of Hezbollah will not diminish, I think that the relations between the Gulf states will remain sour.”
The Gulf may soon show the Lebanese their appreciation for Kordahi’s resignation, but it was not the only deal struck in the midst of the diplomatic crisis.
Prior to Kordahi’s resignation, Hezbollah leaders have pointed out that they backed the Information Minister and their ministers would also resign with him. However, Hezbollah remained silent when rumors of Kordahi’s impending resignation started circulating, hinting that some sort of deal was being struck behind closed doors between Lebanon’s political elite.
Back to Tarek Bitar
Besides the ongoing diplomatic crisis with the Gulf, there has been one other issue that has continued to overshadow all of Mikati’s cabinet activity: Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the August 4 Beirut port explosion.
For nearly two months, the government has been unable to meet since Hezbollah, Amal Movement and Marada Movement’s refusal to do so until the issue of the investigation has been addressed.
“Everything will be stopped until they find some sort of way out for the political class through shifting some of the Bitar powers when it comes to pursuing political leaders and the port investigation, ” Hage Ali said.
The Kordahi debacle only added fuel to the fire and gave Hezbollah more leverage to force Mikati to take action against Bitar.
Young believes that Hezbollah and others used Miktati’s desperate need to have Kordahi resign as a way of striking a deal.
“In a sense, what began as a relatively simple thing, which was Kordahi and getting rid of Kordahi, was complicated by the fact that there was also the issue of Bitar which preceded Kordahi and was complicated by the fact that Michel Aoun wants in on the deal and he wants guarantees on the elections which eventually, in his mind, is tied to the succession question of Gebran [Bassil]. What was a simple issue has multiplied into a more complicated issue,” Young explained.
While there have been no recent announcements about the Beirut Blast investigation, there have been proposals put forward in which Bitar would be dismissed and the ministers who are being investigated by Bitar would be prosecuted in front of a special court for ministers and politicians, effectively ensuring that they would face no consequences.
However, in order for a deal on this to be reached, this would need to be voted on in the parliament, something that Hage Ali says would face fierce opposition from the Lebanese Forces as well as anti-establishment parties and groups.
In addition to this, there are currently disagreements between President Michel Aoun and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri over when the elections should be held.
At the heart of the problem today is Bitar. The Bitar investigation.
Berri has been pushing for early elections in March while Aoun dismisses the idea, saying that they should continue to be held in May.
“The way out of this is some kind of multifaceted deal has to be worked out where elections are delayed until May,” Young stated. “They need some kind of agreement on what to do with Bitar. At this point, they are still working on the mechanism to get rid of him by essentially voting so that the ministers will be tried in front of that special court for officials.”
If an agreement can be reached on when to hold elections, then members of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement will vote in favor of this new court for prosecuting ministers so that way Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is not tainted by the vote when he runs for president.
Suleiman Frangieh also would benefit from this sort of arrangement.
Even though Kordahi comes from Frangieh’s Marada Party, it is more important for the party leader that the Bitar investigation be stopped.
“At the heart of the problem today is Bitar. The Bitar investigation,” Young said. “And Frangieh wants to get rid of Bitar too because if [former minister and Marada member Youssef] Fenianos is linked in any way to the blast, this would undermine or weaken [Frangieh’s] claim to be president next year.”