By Mohammad Mazhari
November 2, 2021
TEHRAN – A former Lebanese ambassador to Chile, Poland, and Canada says most of Lebanese people think that Saudi Arabia overreacted when it decided to cut diplomatic ties with Lebanon due to remarks by George Cordahi, who has been appointed as information minister in the new government of Najib Mikati.
“Many people in Lebanon, including those who blame Minister Cordahi for his comments, think that Saudi Arabia overreacted in its decision to break diplomatic relations with Lebanon,” Massoud Maalouf tells the Tehran Times.
Saudi Arabia ordered Lebanon’s ambassador to leave the kingdom following what it saw as “insulting” remarks by Cordahi, which had been made before he was minister.
Months before he was appointed as information minister, Cordahi had criticized the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, calling it “futile”.
“Although Cordahi’s comments on Yemen were made as a private citizen before he became a minister, it seems that Saudi Arabia lost its patience with Lebanon,” Maalouf notes.
“When the Saudi authorities expressed their discontent with Cordahi’s comments, Saudi adversaries in Lebanon became more emphatic in their support for Cordahi publicly insisting that no apology should be made and harshly criticizing Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen,” the former ambassador pointed out.
Following is the text of the interview:
Saudi Arabia ordered Lebanon’s ambassador to leave the kingdom following what it saw as “insulting” comments by Cordahi. What are the roots of such a decision? Is it comprehensible that critique result to such a political crisis?
Saudi Arabia’s concerns have been mounting for some time about Lebanon’s handling of a variety of matters and it appears that Mr. Cordahi’s comments on the war in Yemen, made before he was appointed a minister in the government, were the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”. The Saudi statement announcing the severance of relations with Lebanon clearly noted those grievances:
– That the Lebanese government did not take any measures to stop the export of illegal drugs to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia blamed this lack of action on Hezbollah alleging that Hezbollah controls all exit and entry points into/out of Lebanon.
– That Lebanon was not cooperating with the Saudi Arabia in extraditing those involved in the drug smuggling alleging that the Lebanese government’s major decisions are under the control of Hezbollah.
Do you think it is acceptable to demand the dismissal of a minister in a foreign country because of his previous remarks? According to political protocols, they can call for an apology.
Many people in Lebanon, including those who blame Minister Cordahi for his comments, think that Saudi Arabia overreacted in its decision to break diplomatic relations with Lebanon. Although Cordahi’s comments on Yemen were made as a private citizen before he became a minister, it seems that Saudi Arabia lost its patience with Lebanon. When the Saudi authorities expressed their discontent with Cordahi’s comments, Saudi adversaries in Lebanon became more emphatic in their support for Cordahi publicly insisting that no apology should be made and harshly criticizing Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen.
Personally, it is my opinion that Cordahi’s comments about Yemen were made as a private citizen and did not warrant a diplomatic breakup between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
“Saudi adversaries in Lebanon became more emphatic in their support for Cordahi publicly insisting that no apology should be made.”Some political observers claim that the Lebanese government is the result of an American-French consensus to the exclusion of Saudi Arabia. Do you think that the Saudis are trying to pressure the new government?
In fact, many more observers think that the Mikati-led Lebanese government was the result of a French-Iranian agreement. Their assessment is based on a phone conversation between French President Macron and Iranian President Raisi a few days before the formation of the Mikati-led government. Although neither Iran nor France has confirmed the existence of such an agreement, it is likely that Saudi Arabia was upset with the fact that the new Mikati-led Lebanese government required the approval and intensive participation of Hezbollah after more than a year of political haggling between Lebanese factions.
Don’t you think that the pressure by Riyadh may lead to the collapse of government in Lebanon? What factors can help Mikati’s government to survive?
Just as the Cordahi comments on Yemen seem to have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back” vis a vis the Saudi-Lebanese diplomatic fray, continued Saudi pressure could also be a factor in a potential downfall of the Lebanese government, especially after the recent decision by Saudi Arabia and other (Persian) Gulf nations to no longer have a presence in that market.
However, there are many domestic reasons that could lead to the collapse of the Mikati-led government such as:
– The Lebanese economic situation whereby more than 70% of the Lebanese population is now under the poverty line according to the UN;
– The fact that people have lost their deposits in the banks;
– The widespread of corruption throughout the government and institutions;
– The inability of the government to implement reforms that could attract foreign assistance;
– The lack of basic necessities such as electricity, gas, medicine and imported products that have become very expensive due to the banking issues and devaluation of the Lebanese pound.
In order to survive, the Mikati-led government will have to address all these problems and more. But some members of the government are insisting on the removal of Judge Bitar before they would agree to attend ministerial meetings.
Judge Bitar is in charge of investigating the 4 August 2020 massive Beirut port explosion. Thus, the Lebanese government is incapable of reaching any solutions to the current problems under the current circumstances with the local population facing the brunt of this inaction.
How can the Lebanese government strike a balance in its ties with regional powers that are at odds with each other?
Striking a balance with the regional political situation is extremely difficult, frankly. Lebanon is always under the influence of the regional powers. It is not only that these powers have interests in Lebanon, but it is a fact that different Lebanese factions seek the support of regional powers in order to promote their own domestic agendas. During the Nasser era, some Lebanese wanted to join the United Arab Republic and unite with it while some others wanted an independent Lebanon. This led to a civil war in 1958. During the early seventies, some Lebanese joined forces with the PLO while others refused and a 15 year war started in 1975. In the current period, some Lebanese are pro-Iranian while others are pro-Saudi Arabia and it will be very difficult for the government to strike a real balance in its ties with regional powers when these powers do not get along. This has been the fate of Lebanon since its independence and nothing shows that things will change in the near future. This is the fate of relatively small countries when they are surrounded by powers competing with each other.
(The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Tehran Times.)