By Elijah J. Magnier:
Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates expelled the Lebanese ambassadors, gave them 48 hours to leave and recalled their respective ambassadors from Beirut. The pretext was an interview released by a recognised journalist, George Kordahi, a month before he was appointed to be the new information minister in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government. During the interview, Kordahi had said, “the Saudi war is useless, and Houthis are defending themselves against an external aggression where the Saudi-led coalition bombs homes, villages, funerals and weddings”. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s strong reaction could look nonsensical and flawed. However, the reason goes way beyond the issue of a journalist’s opinion: Saudi Arabia believes it must exert pressure on Iran’s ally in Lebanon because it was attempting to convince Tehran to stop the Ansar Allah Houthi advance towards the oil-rich and strategic city of Ma’rib in Yemen; an attempt which failed. Thus, the Saudis moved towards the Lebanese government to blame Hezbollah’s allies, Iran’s closest affiliates.
Iran and Saudi Arabia held four rounds of talks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad with a request formulated repeatedly by the Saudi negotiators to stop Ansar-Allah (Houthis) from closing in on the city of Ma’rib. But Iran’s negotiating position is constant: they do not negotiate on behalf of any country or group capable of defending their cause. The Iranian negotiators concentrated on reopening the respective embassies closed since 2016 or the consulates to start with before moving to begin rebuilding the long and challenging path of trust between the two countries. However, Iran suggested that Saudi Arabia declare a general ceasefire and lift the blockade on Sanaa airport and Hudeidah’s harbour to endorse the return to normality.
Nevertheless, Iran tried to mediate with the Houthis. The Ansar Allah positively responded by slowing down the takeover of Ma’rib but only to avoid further bloodshed and convince the local tribes to avoid an unnecessary battle. During that time, the Saudi led-coalition continued bombing objectives around Ma’rib and other targets in Houthi-controlled areas. That belligerent behaviour pushed the Iranian negotiators in Baghdad to hold seven hours of talks with their Saudi counterparts over Yemen and other issues of common interest without reaching any substantive outcome. Both parties left with an agreement to form committees to follow up on the matters discussed in due course. Iran showed little interest in comforting the Saudis over Yemen and hinted: “the Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah has more influence on the Houthis than Iran”.
Saudi Arabia responded by classifying the Lebanese-based Hezbollah-owned bank, al-Qard al-Hassan association, as a terrorist entity. Riyadh lifted its support to many powerful Lebanese Sunni groups for their failure to stand and face Hezbollah. The Saudis removed their support to most local Sunni political leaders, directing their wealth and support to a pro-US pro-Israeli right-wing Christian group led by Samir Geagea. Such an alliance is desperate, has no strategic meaning and doesn’t create an influential Saudi ally in Lebanon. Indeed, Geagea’s small group has no chance to stand against Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, which doesn’t use gloves when confronting the Christian right-wing leader and his militia.
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