BEIRUT -- Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group hosted a conference for Saudi opposition figures in its stronghold south of Beirut on Wednesday in a defiant gesture certain to anger the oil-rich kingdom.
The gathering came as the Lebanese government is trying to mend relations with Saudi Arabia that hit a new low in October when the kingdom recalled its ambassador from Beirut and banned all Lebanese imports.
Top Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said Saudi Arabia should stop its policy of “bullying” others as well as its interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
The conference was attended by Saudi opposition figures as well as members of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. It was meant to commemorate the anniversary of influential Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 in a mass execution of 47 people in the kingdom.
Al-Nimr was an outspoken government critic and a key leader of Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011 demanding greater rights in the majority Sunni nation and fair treatment.
Among the little-known Saudi figures who attended the conference were Fouad Ibrahim, Abbas Sadeq, Hamza al-Hassan and Sheikh Jasem Mahmoud Ali who blasted the Saudi royal family for al-Nimr’s death. Minutes after Safieddine finished his speech, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari tweeted that “the painful truth is that the terrorist Hezbollah is acting above the state.”
The Saudi move to withdraw its ambassador and ban Lebanese imports followed comments by a Lebanese Cabinet minister who said in a televised interview that the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
In early December, Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, who made the comments before he took the job, resigned from his post but the move did not ease the tense relations and the war of words between Hezbollah and Saudi officials has continued.
Lebanon’s prime minister as well as President Michel Aoun, a political ally of the Shiite Hezbollah group, have dissociated themselves from the verbal attacks by Hezbollah leaders against the kingdom.
In late December, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman called on the Lebanese in a speech “to end the terrorist Hezbollah’s control” of Lebanon.
At the root of the crisis is a years-old regional rivalry with Iran and Saudi unease about Hezbollah’s increasing clout in Lebanon.
“We want best relations with Saudi Arabia but Saudi Arabia should stop the policy of bullying” in the region, Safieddine said. “Those who target us will get a response.”
Beirut-based Saudi opposition figure, Ali Hashem, told The Associated Press that they commemorate al-Nimr’s anniversary every year and this year it happened to be in Lebanon.
He added that his presence in Lebanon gives him the right to express his opinion adding that his comments do not violate Lebanese laws. Asked what their goal is, Hashem said: “To bring down the Saudi regime.”