Why Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati never stood a chance

Why Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati never stood a chance
Kordahi’s views came as a rude shock to Lebanon’s Gulf Arab friends.
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Updated 03 November 2021

Why Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati never stood a chance

Why Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati never stood a chance
  • Diplomatic crisis shows a new government or prime minister is not the solution to Lebanon’s problem
  • Mikati has failed to sack Information Minister Kordahi as a first step in mending ties with Gulf states

LONDON/BEIRUT: When Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed a government in September, ending a 13-month-long political stalemate, a collective sigh of relief was heard across the land. But the writing was already on the wall.

It did not take long for the moment of truth to arrive. But it was not the economic meltdown, or the electricity crisis, or the Beirut blast inquiry deadlock or the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the country that laid bare the Mikati government’s impotence. It was something entirely different.

A TV star-turned-information minister was found to harbor outrageous views on an issue only peripherally related to Lebanon’s problems, but which had the potential to precipitate a serious diplomatic crisis for the country.




The people of Lebanon know only too well that the government merry-go-round hides the reality of Hezbollah’s role as the puppet master. (AFP)

In an interview that came to light recently, George Kordahi claimed that the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen was defending itself and that the war in Yemen should stop.

Although the interview was recorded before he assumed his cabinet post, Kordahi’s views came as a rude shock to Lebanon’s Gulf Arab friends, who have been on the receiving end of two kinds of lethal exports originating in Lebanon.

For the past six years, there have been continual attempts to smuggle weapons from Lebanon to the Houthis, and narcotic pills, mainly Captagon, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

As Waleed Bukhari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in a tweet earlier this year: “The quantity of drugs and psychotropics smuggled from Lebanon is enough to drown not only Saudi Arabia but also the entire Arab world.”

Against this backdrop, Lebanese leaders are naturally facing pressure to remove Kordahi from his post as a first step toward mending relations with the Gulf countries.

Lebanese officials also have been urging their American and French counterparts to mediate in the dispute sparked by Kordahi’s comments. The Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that Lebanon’s “great concern (is) to have the best relations with its Gulf and Arab brothers.”




Many Lebanese people think any other leader would have sent Kordahi packing, and accuse Mikati of failing to show strong leadership given that the minister’s views contradict Lebanon’s official position on the Yemen conflict. (AFP)

But all indications are that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Kordahi has said that he does not intend to quit his post. In a televised speech on Sunday he stated bluntly: “Resigning from the government is not an option.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors from Beirut and ordered their respective Lebanese ambassadors to leave. The UAE has also banned its citizens from traveling to Lebanon.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, has made it clear that Kordahi’s statements are but a symptom of the problem affecting Lebanon: The influence of Hezbollah, which has been the de-facto ruler of Lebanon for a very long time.

Seasoned observers of Lebanese politics view Kordahi as an irrelevance at best. They point out that he has a track record of reading someone else’s script: First from a teleprompter as the host of the Arabic version of the quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?;” now, from scripts handed to him by Hezbollah, as described by Arab News Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas in a recent column.

What has come as a rude awakening for Lebanon’s friends and well-wishers is not so much Kordahi’s ill-informed views about the war in Yemen, as the feeble response to them from Mikati’s government.

“Compared with the average Lebanese prime minister, Mikati is less confrontational and more consensus-driven,” Chris Abi-Nassif, the Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “Last week’s diplomatic escalation caught him by surprise, especially given that he was banking on his relatively good ties with the Gulf to start reversing Lebanon’s downward trajectory.

“The escalation, however, shows that he clearly has very little maneuvering space and political capital today to stand up against Hezbollah or appease (let alone engage) the Gulf states, which explains the indecision in Beirut over the past few days.”




Kordahi has said that he does not intend to quit his post. (AFP)

Mikati, who is currently in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, was due to hold “several international and Arab meetings on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the current crisis between Lebanon and Gulf countries” on the sidelines of the event.

Precisely what conciliatory steps he is contemplating are far from clear, even though Fawzi Kabbara, Lebanon’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said upon his return to Beirut that “restoring Lebanese-Saudi ties would be possible if Lebanon agrees to the conditions.”

Many Lebanese people think any other leader would have sent Kordahi packing, and accuse Mikati of failing to show strong leadership given that the minister’s views contradict Lebanon’s official position on the Yemen conflict.

They add that it is obvious from the controversy that Kordahi’s protectors are Hezbollah and its ally, the Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh, who have pointedly praised him and are ensuring that he remains in his job.

“Whether it’s Najib Mikati or anybody that comes to the premiership, the individual is not going to be able to turn the ship around,” Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News. 

If Lebanon has any hope of healing the rift with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, he said, the best course would be promising not to get involved in Yemen, taking action on illicit smuggling, and reining in the rhetoric.

“Its pledge not to be involved in foreign wars, including Yemen, and support for the Houthis would be a good place to start,” Maksad said.

 




George Kordahi claimed that the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen was defending itself and that the war in Yemen should stop. (AFP)

“Serious, structured efforts to contain and stop the flow of drugs to the Gulf via land and other means of transport would be a gesture that would go down well, and begin to alleviate serious Saudi concerns. 

“And then trying to carefully calibrate public pronouncements directed against the Kingdom and its interests from Lebanese officials would be a third, but it would be a distant third.

“I don’t think that the problem begins, and certainly does not end, with folks that make these statements. The statement is a symptom of the illness, not the illness itself. But again, I think the prospects of any of those are limited.”

Hezbollah has not officially been accused of being behind “the flow of drugs to the Gulf” but most fingers point in its direction. According to a report by The Euro-Gulf Information Center: “The sale of drugs represents an important source of revenue for Hezbollah, made more important due to US sanctions on key party members and its main financial sponsor, Iran. The collapse of the Lebanese state has also pushed Hezbollah deeper into the illicit drug trade — there is less to steal from the national economy.”
The accusations are hardly surprising given that Lebanon has long been under Hezbollah’s thumb. The people know only too well that the government merry-go-round hides the reality of Hezbollah’s role as the puppet master. The prime minister enjoys the visible trappings of power but it is ultimately Hezbollah which calls the shots.




Hezbollah has not officially been accused of being behind the surge in drug-smuggling operations but most fingers point in its direction. (SPA)

“Mikati is not the perfect candidate for any heavy lifting in Beirut, neither when it comes to the required reforms, nor when it comes to the major political crises Lebanon is facing,” Bachar Halabi, a Lebanese political analyst, told Arab News.

“At best, Mikati is a compromise candidate who fills a gap when (former Prime Minister Saad) Hariri is out of power. He does not enjoy the wide popularity or the guts for confrontations. Hence, he is a ‘filler’ in a way. And with all those dossiers blowing up in his face, Mikati is clueless and helpless as well.”

Halabi added: “Today, Hezbollah controls the country. It controls the executive, it controls the legislature, it controls the presidency and it holds a sway over the judiciary and the media.

“With Lebanon falling almost entirely under Iran’s influence, as in the country becoming a satellite state for the regime in Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the particularity of Lebanon and what it represented for the Gulf countries has diminished, whether as a geopolitical asset, banking sector, the health sector or a space with plenty of margin for the press.”


Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise
Updated 07 December 2021

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise
  • Friendship Bridge 4 is part of Egypt’s plan to carry out joint military training with friendly countries

CAIRO: The Egyptian and Russian navies have launched the joint exercise Friendship Bridge 4, which will last for several days in the Mediterranean.

It began with a ceremony welcoming Russian forces at the Alexandria Naval Base in the presence of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Khaled Hassan Saeed, who delivered a speech in which he stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries’ navies.

Friendship Bridge 4 is part of Egypt’s plan to carry out joint military training with friendly countries.

 Meanwhile, the armed forces of Egypt and Jordan concluded their joint exercise Aqaba-6. The training, which took place in Jordan, included a joint operation to eliminate an armed terrorist outpost inside a border village, and the interception of a merchant ship.


Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation
Updated 07 December 2021

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation
  • A Beirut court rejected the last of the suits preventing Tarek Bitar from questioning top officials

BEIRUT: The probe into last year’s deadly Beirut port blast has been cleared to resume after being suspended for more than a month on legal claims against its lead investigator, judge Tarek Bitar, a judicial source said.
A Beirut court rejected the last of the suits preventing Bitar from questioning top officials on Tuesday.
“They have reversed the decision that had led to the suspension of the probe and he can now resume his work for sure,” Nizar Saghieh, head of the Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organization, told Reuters.
The resumption could be temporary should further legal complaints be filed, he said.
The investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, blast that killed more than 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the city has made little headway amid pushback from powerful factions, some of whom lead smear campaigns and filed multiple suits against Bitar.
The leader of the Iranian-backed, armed Shiite Muslim political movement Hezbollah has repeatedly said he wanted Bitar removed from the case and the row over him has spilled over into government, with Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet unable to meet since Oct. 12.
Many Lebanese are angry that more than one year on from the blast no senior official has been held accountable for the country’s worst peace-time disaster as it slips into political and economic meltdown.
Bitar has sought to question senior politicians, including former ministers and members of parliament, since July but nearly all have spurned him.
He is the second judge to take charge of the investigation after a legal complaint against the partiality of his predecessor Fady Sawan saw him removed in February.


Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4
Updated 07 December 2021

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

BASRA: At least four people were killed and 20 wounded in an explosion in Iraq's southern city of Basra, police and hospital sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
Police are still investigating the cause of the blast, which took place in the city centre, near a main hospital. The explosion set fire to at least one vehicle and damaged a minibus.
One police source said that an initial investigation showed that a motorcycle rigged with explosives could have been the cause of the blast. 


UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed
Updated 07 December 2021

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed
  • It is the first polymer banknote to be circulated in the country
  • The current 50- dirham note will continue to be used

DUBAI: UAE rulers witnessed the launch of a new 50-dirham banknote on Tuesday, in celebration of the country’s 50th National Day. 
The initiative comes in honor of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, and the country’s first generation of rulers to commemorate their dedication and historical role in uniting the country.
It is the first polymer banknote to be circulated in the country.
“We see in this issuance the new phase that UAE will enter, and a renewed pledge to continue its growth path. The occasion also allowed us to express our appreciation and gratitude to our founding fathers by issuing a new AED50 banknote to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the UAE,” said Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Central Bank of the UAE. 
The front of the new banknote features a portrait of the late Sheikh Zayed on the right, and the memorial picture of the founding fathers after signing the union document. 
Meanwhile, the back side includes a picture of the late Sheikh Zayed signing the union agreement as well as illustration of the Etihad Museum, which witnessed the establishment of the union and the raising of the UAE flag for the first time.
According to state news agency WAM, the new banknote will be available in Central Bank branches and ATMs ‘in the near future’.
The current 50- dirham note will continue to be used.
Polymer banknotes are said to be more durable and sustainable than traditional cotton paper banknotes, lasting two or more times longer in circulation. They can also be completely recycled, thus reducing their environmental footprint.


Syria says fires extinguished at Latakia’s port following Israeli ‘aggression’

 Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jets fly over the Mediterranean Sea. (REUTERS file photo)
Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jets fly over the Mediterranean Sea. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 07 December 2021

Syria says fires extinguished at Latakia’s port following Israeli ‘aggression’

 Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jets fly over the Mediterranean Sea. (REUTERS file photo)
  • Israel has mounted frequent attacks against what it has described as Iranian targets in Syria

CAIRO: Fires caused by an Israeli “aggression” at Syria’s Latakia port on Tuesday had been extinguished, leaving material damage, but the status of any casualties was unclear, Syria’s state media reported.

Five explosions rocked the port city after an Israeli “aggression” hit the port’s container yard, sending fire trucks racing to the site, Syrian state TV said.

Israel has mounted frequent attacks against what it has described as Iranian targets in Syria, where Tehran-backed forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah have deployed over the last decade to support President Bashar Assad.

The Mediterranean port of Latakia is the country’s main port, through which food and other crucial supplies flow into war-torn Syria, and is close to Russia’s main air base of Hmeimim.