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Ana Maria Luca

Hezbollah and the Gulf

Exploring the GCC and Hezbollah’s often tumultuous relationship

Lebanese Shiite supporters of Hezbollah protesting in Dubai in 2006, three years before the UAE began expelling them.

The United States listed Hezbollah as terrorist organization in 1999. The European Union is about to finalize a procedure to list Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization after a bombing in Bulgaria in 2012, as well as its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Bahrain already blacklisted Hezbollah last week, accusing it of instigating protests against the government. It came as no surprise then that all the Arab Gulf states followed suit and decided to consider taking measures against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which met last Sunday in Jeddah, announced it had “decided to look into taking measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the member states.” But the GCC chief, Abdullatif al-Zayani, did not elaborate on what kind of interests he referred to.

 

It was Bahrain’s foreign minister, Ghanem al-Buainain, who submitted the proposal to blacklist Hezbollah to the GCC. Bahrain also banned local political groups from having any contact with Hezbollah last week. The country, ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family, has been shaken by political unrest for two years as Shiite Bahrainis have demanded democratic reforms. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s government has blamed Hezbollah for inciting civil strife.

 

Analysts in Lebanon and abroad say the move goes beyond Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. It also encompasses the broader Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Arab world and an older grudge the Gulf States hold against Hezbollah and its patron (Iran) for past attacks and kidnappings.

 

“The GCC designation comes on the heels of the Bahraini listing, and against the backdrop of heightened regional concern over the activities of Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah,” said Matt Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Hezbollah The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God.

 

“This includes not only Syria, which is the most blatant and immediate example, but also Hezbollah's delivery of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, [as well as] the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah’s activities in Iraq over the last few years,” Levitt pointed out.

 

However, the issue is seen differently from Beirut. According to Kassem Kassir, an analyst of Shiite affairs, “The relationship between Hezbollah and the Gulf countries was very good until recently.” Kassir continued, “We could see the Saudi ambassador always visiting Hezbollah, and during 2006 Hezbollah raised the famous ‘Thank you, Qatar!’ [after Qatar raised millions in aid to war-torn southern Lebanon]. The tension between these countries and Hezbollah is due to Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf-Iran conflict,” he explained.

 

Apart from Bahrain, the GCC also includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. Each country has dealt with Hezbollah differently over the past decade.

 

Qatar pledged a massive aid package to help rebuild the south after Israel's devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006. It also played a key role in the resolution of the May 2008 crisis that ended with an agreement signed in Doha. The Emir of Qatar visited southern Lebanon in 2010. But once the Syrian conflict began, and Qatar supported the opposition and Iran/Hezbollah got involved on the side of the regime, the relationship quickly turned sour.

 

Lebanese Shiites also migrated to the booming business environment in the UAE, often establishing companies there. But in 2009, the UAE reportedly started to expel Shiites in general (and Lebanese Shiites in particular). UAE authorities explained the move as a “security threat,” a hint that the real motive was their alleged connection with Hezbollah.

 

According to Iranian Public Television (IRIB), as much as 4000 Shiite Muslims have been deported from the UAE over the past 4 years, even though many of these Lebanese have been residing in the UAE for over two decades. As the deportations reportedly continued, debates were triggered on Shiite forums, and many users accuse the authorities in the UAE of indiscriminately expelling Lebanese Shiites and confiscating their businesses and assets.

 

Hezbollah’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been on the edge, depending on the Iranian-Saudi regional rivalry. Similarly, Kuwait has been wary of Iran and Hezbollah’s interests after their failed assassination attempt on the emir in 1983. Since then, Kuwaiti officials have constantly hunted and arrested alleged spy rings.

 

Oman, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, has surprisingly good relations with Tehran, the West, and Gulf states. Oman has kept quiet on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and the country hasn’t criticized Iranian interference either. At the same time, Oman has taken up the role of a mediator, spending significant resources on bailing out American hikers arrested in Iran, and negotiating for the release of British sailors taken hostage by Tehran.

 

“Listing Hezbollah as a terrorist [organization] will do no harm to Hezbollah, but it will harm the Gulf countries that should be aware that Hezbollah is an important actor on the political scene in Lebanon,” Kassir said.

 

Ali al-Amin, a political analyst for al-Balad and commentator on Shiite community affairs, stressed Hezbollah’s importance in local politics. “The Gulf countries know exactly the importance of Hezbollah on the Lebanese political scene. The UAE is treating the Shiites there as if they are listed as terrorists. The official statement will change nothing, they will keep on expelling people and stalking them, and treating them as terrorists,” al-Amin reiterated.

 

Levitt, however, does not believe it is Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon that keeps the Gulf countries from listing it as a terrorist organization. “They are hesitant on this account only because they are concerned about retaliation. Hezbollah has a long history of activities in the region dating back to bombings, as well as the attempted assassination of the Kuwaiti emir in the 1980s,” Levitt stressed.

 

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

 

Yara Chehayed contributed with translation.

Lebanese Shiite supporters of Hezbollah protesting in Dubai in 2006, three years before the UAE began expelling them. (AFP Photo)

“'This includes not only Syria, which is the most blatant and immediate example, but also Hezbollah's delivery of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, [as well as] the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah’s activities in Iraq over the last few years.'”