GCC-Hezbollah dispute intensifies
DUBAI - The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has officially designated the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia as a terrorist organisation, a move that comes less than two weeks after Saudi Arabia announced it was halting $4 billion worth of aid intended for the Lebanese military.
GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani, in a statement, stressed the council made its decision as a result of the “militia’s practices in the council’s states and their terrorist and subversive acts being carried out in Syria, Yemen and Iraq contradict moral and humanitarian values and principles and the international law and pose a threat to Arab national security”.
The latest tension comes as Saudi Arabia and fellow GCC member the United Arab Emirates have cracked down on alleged cells and businesses affiliated with Hezbollah, increasing pressure in a manner in line with the Saudis’ more assertive regional foreign policy.
On February 26th, the Saudi Interior Ministry blacklisted four companies and three Lebanese men linked to Hezbollah. The Saudis named Fadi Hussein Sarhan, Adel Mohammed Sheri and Ali Hussein Zeater, who according to the US Treasury Department purchased unmanned aerial vehicles and obtained electronics “for transport to Yemen for use in improvised explosive devices by the Houthis”.
Sarhan and Sheri were put on a sanctions list by the United States in 2015 over their support for Hezbollah, particularly, “for providing material support to enhance the group’s military and terrorist capabilities”.
The media war between the kingdom and Hezbollah has also escalated.
Scores of Hezbollah supporters on February 27th protested in Beirut against Saudi Arabia. However, their motivation wasn’t the war in Syria or the cancellation of military aid but rather a satirical depiction of Hezbollah Secretary- General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC.
Supporters of the militia closed roads with burning tyres over the programme’s lampooning of Nasrallah’s pro-Iranian stance and his minor speech impediment.
Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank, the largest in the kingdom in terms of assets, closed both of its branches in Beirut, in what local reports described as a precaution against money laundering and terrorism funding.
According to Saudi financial analyst Fadl al-Boainain, this is not the first time such a thing has happened in the Lebanese banking industry. “Such was the case with the Canadian Lebanese Bank, which was involved in the operations of an international network for money laundering and drug trade,” he said.
The GCC views Iran, Hezbollah’s main backer, as a cause of regional instability, pointing to evidence of that in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Tensions were heightened in January when Riyadh severed diplomatic ties following the storming of its Tehran embassy by protesters angered at Saudi Arabia’s execution of a radical Shia cleric convicted of involvement in killing police.
Saudi Arabia cancelled a $4 billion aid package to the Lebanese Army due to the Lebanese government’s failure to condemn the January attacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran. This was followed by travel bans by the kingdom, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, a huge blow to Lebanon’s tourism industry.
In the last few weeks, nearly three dozen people have been ordered to stand trial in a special Saudi criminal court on charges of spying for Iran. All but two of the 32 individuals, formally charged February 21st, are members of the kingdom’s minority Shia community. The other defendants were of Iranian and Afghan descent.
The suspects, arrested in 2013, have been charged with establishing a spy ring in collaboration with Iranian intelligence, providing Iran with highly sensitive information on the Saudi military, seeking to sabotage Saudi economic interests, inciting sectarian strife, recruiting others for espionage and participating in anti-government protests, local reports said.
The United Arab Emirates also recently had a series of terrorism-related trials involving defendants allegedly belonging to organisations, including Hezbollah.
Regarding the Hezbollah cell, three Lebanese men were charged with illegally establishing and managing a group linked to the Lebanese militia. The men were also accused of providing Hezbollah with intelligence on UAE businesses operating in Lebanon and information related to UAE-Iranian relations. According to testimony during the trial, there are numerous UAE-based Lebanese-owned businesses, mainly in the restaurant and food industry as well as a number of bookshops, which provide funds to Hezbollah.
Both cases were adjourned until March 14th.
In December, US President Barack Obama signed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which aims to expand economic sanctions on the Lebanese militia, especially with regards to its global financial operations.