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How a Lebanese Minister Stirred Up a Regional Spat With Saudi Arabia and UAE

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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ג'ורג' קורדאחי
שר ההסברה של לבנון
Information Minister George KordahiCredit: Anwar Amro/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Information Minister George Kordahi became the most famous member of Lebanon’s recently appointed cabinet last week. But this celebrity threatens to come at a very high cost to the already embattled country.

Last August, a few weeks before being appointed to the cabinet, he said during a television interview that the Houthis in Yemen were struggling against foreign aggression that has destroyed their homes and their lives. “The war in Yemen is futile,” he said. Once the social networks spread word of the interview, one could already smell the thick smoke rising from the fire Kordahi had set. And within two days, you could see the fire, too.

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Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies in the war against the Houthis in Yemen, expelled Lebanon’s ambassadors from their countries and recalled their ambassadors from Lebanon. Bahrain joined them the following day. Kordahi’s assertions that he was only expressing a personal opinion (since he had not yet officially taken up his cabinet post) and that now he was taking extreme care to emphasize Lebanon’s non-intervention in regional conflicts, fell on deaf ears.

For Saudi Arabia, which in the past has been the target of Kordahi’s pointed criticism, it was an opportunity it had been waiting for. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, who is spending billions of dollars worldwide to enhance his image and that of his kingdom, decided to punish Lebanon and its government, which had been formed after months of negotiations and had already undergone a baptism by fire in the form of violent clashes in the streets of the country’s cities. Prince Mohammed halted imports from Lebanon and banned Saudis from visiting Lebanon.

Yemenis attend the funeral of a military commander loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed governmentCredit: AFP

Saudi Arabia had already imposed sanctions on Lebanon in April after Saudi security services intercepted millions of ecstasy pills and other drugs concealed in fruit shipments headed for the Gulf. With the additional sanctions, Lebanon now finds itself sharing the same pariah status as Qatar, against which a Saudi embargo and blockade was imposed in 2017, though it was lifted in January.

Kordahi, a 71-year-old Maronite Christian, enjoyed a stellar media career before joining the cabinet. Starting as a reporter for the television broadcaster Tele Liban in the 1970s, he moved on to Radio Monte Carlo, where he served as editor in chief. He rose to fame as the best-known television presenter in the Middle East when the Saudi-owned MBC network hired him in 2000 as the host of the Arabic version of the program “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

The show was a dizzying success, with tens of millions of viewers glued to the screen every week and thousands of contestants from all over the Middle East vying to be a contestant. It generated massive advertising revenues. Kordahi capitalized on his fame marketing a perfume bearing his name and a line of elegant men’s suits. His personal wealth is estimated at over $20 million.

In 2017, MBC’s owner, Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, spent 83 days jailed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, along with dozens of other billionaires and millionaires detained there on the orders of Prince Mohammed. They were released only after they agreed to part with hundreds of millions of dollars.

As for Kordahi, the clever media host, perennially smiling and offering to help out the contestants, he had left MBC a year earlier after saying on the air that there was an Arab plot against Syria.

It was not the first time that he had shown sympathy for the Syrian president. Back in 2011, at the height of the massacres carried out by the Syrian regime against its citizens, Kordahi caused a storm when he declared support for Assad. In a 2018 interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar network, Kordahi was asked who he believed should be the man of the year. Kordahi did not suffice with a single candidate. He proposed three: Bashar Assad, Hassan Nasrallah and Vladimir Putin.

Given the trouble that Kordahi’s statements have caused, it is not exactly clear why Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, appointed him information minister. But Lebanese politics revolves around both personal connections and political leanings, and Mikati, who is closely associated with Hezbollah, needed to quickly put together a consensus government. As a result, Kordahi found himself one of Lebanon’s more important ministers.

After his appointment, Kordahi added a little more fuel to the Lebanese fire when, returning from a visit to Dubai, he asked Lebanese media outlets to avoid interviewing people known for their anti-government positions.

The question now is whether Mikati, who disavowed his minister’s remarks, will fire Kordahi and cave into Saudi pressure, or whether he will stick to the national line, according to which Lebanon cannot be extorted.

This is not merely a moral dilemma; the decision is liable to have political and economic repercussions. Submitting to Saudi demands would set him on a collision course with Hezbollah and subject him to public criticism. But resisting Saudi pressure will harm the Lebanese economy, freeze the financial assistance promised by the UAE and disrupt reconstruction of the bombed-out Beirut port.

No one in Lebanon has forgotten the humiliating affair four years ago when Prince Mohammed ordered Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia for a reprimand, then barred him from leaving the kingdom and forced him to resign. International and pan-Arab pressure won the day, and Hariri returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation. The affair was added to the list of Mohammed Bin Salman’s diplomatic bungles.

Lebanon PM Saad Hariri, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Khalid bin Salman, March 4, 2018 Credit: Twitter

It is interesting, as well, to note that Prine Mohammed never dreamed of bringing home his ambassadors from the United States, France or Germany, or expelling their ambassadors from Riyadh, despite the criticism they have voiced against the war in Yemen and over human rights violations in Saudi Arabia that were many times more harsh than anything uttered by Kordahi.

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