Analysis |

A Lebanese Minister Irks the Saudis, and the Damages Are $300 Million and Counting

Before he took office, Information Minister George Kordahi voiced support for the Houthi rebels, not the best tactic when you’re hoping Riyadh’s largesse will help pull your country out of a deep economic crisis

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Lebanese holding Saudi flags in support of the kingdom outside the Saudi Embassy in Beirut late last month.
Lebanese holding Saudi flags in support of the kingdom outside the Saudi Embassy in Beirut late last month.Credit: Bilal Hussein / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hundreds of Lebanese shipping containers are waiting at the Jordanian-Saudi border. Many of them contain fruits and vegetables that are probably no longer fit to eat. The cost to Lebanese farmers from the Saudi embargo on their country has been put at $97 million and running.

Manufactured goods barred from entering the kingdom have added another $100 million or so to the damage. All told, according to unofficial estimates, total losses are at about $300 million, and the Saudis show no signs of easing the punishment.

It all goes back to late October and the showing of a television interview with Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, who called the war in Yemen “absurd and should stop,” adding that the Houthi rebels “are defending themselves against foreign aggression.” Aimed at the soft Saudi underbelly, the remarks were intolerable to the leaders in Riyadh.

The interview took place in August, before Kordahi took up his post in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s new government. But Riyadh already had an open account with Beirut and wouldn’t accept the excuse that Kordahi was then a private citizen and that now as a minister he’s committed to the government line: Don’t take sides in regional disputes. The Saudis expelled the Lebanese ambassador and called his counterpart in Beirut back home.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain did the same; then the kingdom barred Lebanese imports and ordered Saudi nationals not to visit Lebanon.

This isn’t the first time Saudi Arabia has barred Lebanese goods. In April, it announced a similar ban after its customs agents uncovered an attempt to smuggle millions of ecstasy pills and other drugs by hiding them in shipments of fresh fruit.

Lebanon now fears that the Saudis won’t be satisfied with just a destructive embargo and will expel Lebanese nationals working in the kingdom, who send hundreds of millions of dollars home and provide a lifeline to the country’s beleaguered economy. Around 350,000 Lebanese are believed to be working in Saudi Arabia, among the 550,000 working all over the Gulf.

Lebanse Information Minister George Kordahi speaking at a press conference at the presidential palace in Baabda in September.Credit: Anwar Amro / AFP

The Hezbollah angle

Beyond the immediate damage, the Saudi pressure campaign threatens to further complicate Lebanon’s efforts to extricate itself from its deep economic crisis.

The government in Beirut seeks a deal with the financial institutions holding its eurobonds, hoping to reschedule repayment. But investors’ willingness hinges on how much they think Lebanon can meet the new repayment terms. Lebanon had hoped to win some $2 billion in grants and loans from the Saudis and the other Gulf powers, as well as a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

But as long as no understanding is reached on Kordahi, it’s unlikely the Saudis will come up with money to rescue Lebanon. And without that support, Beirut won’t have the loan guarantees it needs. Nor will it have the funds for natural gas and electricity imports from Egypt and Jordan; Lebanon needs to solve its power crisis.

Under an agreement between Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, Egypt will deliver to Lebanon gas via an existing pipeline that runs through Jordan and Syria. Jordan is also supposed to connect its power grid to Lebanon’s via Syria.

The emergency plan has won Washington’s backing despite its sanctions on Syria, in the hope that the deal will reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iran. For Syria, by the way, the project will be an economic lifeline because Damascus is expected to receive a “payment” worth 8 percent of the gas and electricity destined for Lebanon.

But right now, Lebanon fears that the Saudis will put pressure on Egypt and Jordan to suspend the project until Beirut surrenders to Saudi demands. These include firing Kordahi and cutting ties with Hezbollah. So far, Lebanon has resolutely refused to do either.

Firing the minister, who is close to Hezbollah and an enthusiastic supporter of Syria, is seen in Lebanon as a serious affront to its sovereignty and illegitimate interference in its domestic affairs. Severing its Hezbollah links is seen as unrealistic because the organization isn’t just a partner in the governing coalition, it represents a large segment of the public sector. Expelling it will lead to violence and perhaps a civil war.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman at a ceremony in Riyadh in 2018.Credit: Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Court / Reuters

Prince Mohammed back on the block?

The question is whether the Saudis are really intent on pushing Lebanon into an economic free fall or are just flexing their muscles to get themselves back on the Middle Eastern stage.

In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman heavy-handedly summoned then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh, where he ordered him to resign. International pressure, mainly from France and the United States, got Hariri released and returned to office. The crown prince may hope that U.S. President Joe Biden will break his boycott on speaking to the prince so Mohammed can beseech him to end the embargo.

Until the mediation efforts by Arab and Western powers bear fruit, the Kordahi affair will continue to impose a high price on Lebanon and its suffering people. The latest bad news is the international drugmakers’ departure from the country. Some are already gone, leaving behind a handful of local representatives to service increasingly empty store shelves.

No one dreams anymore of easy access to gasoline or a regular supply of electricity. In some parts of the country, electricity is available for just three hours a day. Hospitals only do emergency surgery and only during the hours they have power. Patients have to buy medication privately, and medical staff don’t show up for work because they haven’t been paid in full in months. When they do get paid, their salaries buy less and less because of soaring inflation and the falling value of the Lebanese pound.

The biggest threat facing Lebanon is being labeled a failed state with no chance, meaning that any aid won’t help because it ends up in the pockets of the politicians, their associates and interest groups. A political reconstruction, on which economic reconstruction depends, seems like a distant dream. As the crisis goes from bad to worse, Lebanon gets pushed further down the to-do lists of the Western and Arab powers.

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