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Saudi Arabia says it is expelling Lebanon’s ambassador and stopping Lebanese imports

Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, Sept. 13, 2021. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia said Friday it has given the Lebanese ambassador 48 hours to leave and is halting imports from Lebanon after a top official in Beirut expressed sympathy for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, sparking outrage in the kingdom.

The announcement, which also said that the Saudi ambassador would be recalled from Beirut for “discussions,” cited the comments made by Information Minister George Kordahi.

In an interview released Tuesday and broadcast on Al Jazeera, Kordahi was asked his opinion about the campaign being waged by the Houthis — an ­Iranian-allied rebel group fighting Yemeni government forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.

“It’s self-defense. … Are they assaulting anyone?” Kordahi said in the interview, which was recorded in August, shortly before he became information minister. When a host cited drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, Kordahi responded: “But you need to also look at the damages inflicted on them as a people. They are bombed in their homes, in their houses, in their villages, in their squares, in their funerals.”

Both Saudi Arabia and the rebels have faced international criticism over human rights atrocities in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia issued a statement Wednesday sharply rejecting Kordahi’s comments and summoned the Lebanese ambassador to deliver an official letter of protest. Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates followed suit.

The foreign ministry statement released Friday night, which cited Kordahi’s comments as the main reason for new punitive measures, reflects a further escalation in tensions between the Saudi and Lebanese governments. Saudi media outlets reported earlier in the week, just one day after Kordahi’s interview aired, that Saudi media giant MBC Group will close operations in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been in free-fall for years, especially after the kingdom detained Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017 during a visit to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and made him announce his resignation.

Saudi Arabia has been a major source of investment in Lebanon, and Lebanese employed in the kingdom provide crucial remittances to families back home. But Saudi officials have watched with consternation as the militant Hezbollah group, allied with Iran, has established itself as Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force.

Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has also uncovered the smuggling of tens of millions of amphetamine pills known as Captagon, often hidden in Lebanese shipments of fruit such as pomegranates. In May, Saudi Arabia banned all Lebanese fruits and vegetables, delivering a blow to farmers who rely on exports to the country. Exports were later resumed, after Lebanese officials promised to do more to combat smuggling.

Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati, has promised to try to secure Arab Gulf funding to rescue Lebanon from its economic crisis, but Saudi Arabia has consistently refused to send assistance, citing the control that Hezbollah exerts over the government.

In its statement Friday, the Saudi foreign ministry again faulted Lebanon for failing to stop drug smuggling and cited “Hezbollah’s control” over decisions taken by the Lebanese state.

Saudi Arabia has made a concerted effort over the past year to move Saudi state-sponsored media operations home, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to establish his country as a regional business hub. But the timing of the sudden announcement to relocate MBC Group’s operations in Lebanon came in response to the interview released Tuesday with Kordahi, the Lebanese information minister, according to an insider.

MBC Group is the Arab world’s largest private media conglomerate and has effectively determined Arab television tastes for more than two decades. Its channels air shows ranging from Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap operas and captioned foreign films to regionally produced game shows and Arabic dramas. It even has a Farsi channel.

Its founder and chairman, Waleed al-Ibrahim, was held in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh along with his three brothers and several hundred other businessmen and princes in 2017, when Crown Prince Mohammed locked up Saudi notables in what he called an anti-corruption sweep.

MBC has not declared how much it spends on operations in Lebanon or how many employees it has in the country. The Beirut office has long been a significant hub where many well-known shows are filmed, thanks to Lebanon’s existing film infrastructure and readily available talent.

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Kordahi became a household name across the region as the host of MBC’s Arab version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” between 2000 and 2010. In September, he reemerged in the public eye as Lebanon’s new information minister. Detractors quickly found clips of him lauding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah.

Houthi Information Minister Dhaifallah al-Shami welcomed Kordahi’s comments and told a Houthi-controlled news agency that Kordahi was experiencing harassment for exercising freedom of speech.

In recent weeks, the Houthis have made significant gains in the battle for Marib, an oil-rich province and the last government stronghold in the country’s north. Government forces have managed to hold off the group with Saudi air support.

Employees at MBC heard rumors for a while that the company wanted to relocate its Lebanese operations, which would lead to a significant financial loss for Lebanon.

An MBC employee in Lebanon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said there was no announcement to employees, who learned of the decision through news media.

Siobhán O'Grady in Cairo and Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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