Saudi-Lebanese relations further deteriorate

Friday 08/04/2016
A view of the office of Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in Beirut, on April 1st, after it was ransacked by protesters.

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.