Saudi-Lebanese relations further deteriorate
London - Relations between Lebanon and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and in particular Saudi Arabia, continued their downward spiral with the ransacking of the offices of a Saudi-owned newspaper in Beirut.
The offices of pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat was attacked April 1st as part of the uproar caused by a cartoon depicting the Lebanese flag with the words “April Fools… the Lebanese state”.
Video footage showed a group of men entering the offices of the publication, saying they wanted to talk with newspaper employees. Security personnel said journalists were not currently at the office and the protesters then trashed the offices and threatened and insulted newspaper staff members.
According to local reports, Beirut authorities arrested seven individuals in connection with the attack and issued an arrest warrant with regards to another individual.
GCC Secretary-General Abdul Latif al-Zayani condemned the attack, saying: “This cowardly aggression does not express the stances of the brotherly Lebanese people, who realise very well the effective and distinctive role being carried out by Asharq Al-Awsat in supporting Lebanon in the media as well as supporting its government in its efforts in maintaining the security and stability of Lebanon and achieve the aspirations of its sons in establishing freedom, dignity and development.”
The newspaper defended publication of the cartoon, contending that it has been misinterpreted. However, the cartoon in question was removed from the newspaper’s website.
According to the newspaper’s statement: “Asharq Al-Awsat condemns the vicious assault on its Beirut offices… and it holds the Lebanese state responsible for maintaining the safety of its office employees.”
The statement added that the “caricature aimed to shed light on the reality of the Lebanese state as an entity living a huge lie. It comes from attempts to dominate it and drive it away from its Arab environment,” a reference to Iranian influence on Lebanese politics.
Security at the Saudi embassy in Lebanon was increased following the attack on Asharq Al-Awsat and death threats against Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri.
Asiri recently said he was subjected to an extortion plot but did not elaborate. “We are taking these threats seriously but I will continue to do my diplomatic duty and will stay in Lebanon for now,” he added.
The attack on the Saudi publication came a day after the announcement that Saudi-funded Al Arabiya news channel would close shop in Lebanon due to security concerns. Al Arabiya described the closure as restructuring, which included the elimination of 27 positions, brought about by “challenges on the ground”.
The deterioration in relations between the GCC and Lebanon began when Lebanon’s Hezbollah-affiliated foreign minister refused to condemn the January attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, leading Riyadh to cancel $4 billion in grants intended for the Lebanese military. This was followed by travel bans by a number of GCC countries to Lebanon.
On March 2nd, the GCC declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. Analysts said the GCC will appeal to countries outside the region to match their moves.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel said the GCC-Hezbollah dispute might see Saudi Arabia press European countries to brand Hezbollah in its entirety, and not just its military wing, as a terror group.
“London and Paris are desperate to keep their lucrative arms sales relationships with Riyadh,” Riedel wrote. “They also need Saudi help to fight jihadist terrorism. If Riyadh presses hard, the Europeans will find it difficult to resist.”
Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, citing a security source, recently reported that more than 60 Lebanese nationals were expelled from the Gulf state for alleged ties to Hezbollah. Those considered “dangerous cases” were given 48 hours to leave to country.
This marked the second wave of deportations from Kuwait in less than a month.
Al-Qabas also reported that GCC countries were sharing intelligence and were putting together a unified list of individuals banned from working in any of six countries that make up the alliance.