The Arab League on Friday formally branded Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group a terrorist organisation, a move that raises concerns of deepening divisions among Arab countries and ramps up the pressure on the Shiite group, which is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
The decision came during a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Arab League at the organisation’s seat in Cairo, the Egyptian state MENA news agency reported. It came just a day after the league elected veteran Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as its new chief.
The move aligns the 22-member league firmly behind Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led bloc of six Gulf Arab nations, which made the same formal branding against Hezbollah on March 2.
It also brings the league in line with the United States, which is closely allied with the Gulf states and has long considered Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation.
The European Union only lists the military wing of Hezbollah on its terrorist blacklist.
In Cairo, Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Qattan, told the satellite TV station Al Arabiya that the vote was not unanimous as Lebanon and Iraq abstained.
Earlier in the day, the Saudi delegation stormed out of a league meeting in protest over a speech by Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari hailing Hezbollah and Shiite militias as “resistant movements.”
“I only described Hezbollah as a resistant movement and rejected accusations against the Popular Mobilisation Forces (a Shiite Iraqi group) and other resistant movements,” al-Jaafari told the state daily Al-Ahram.
The decision by the Arab League is a significant blow to Hezbollah and it is also likely to further aggravate tensions in Lebanon, undermining the country’s delicate political balance amid fierce political infighting between groups loyal to Hezbollah and Saudi-backed factions.
The league’s decision also reflects deep regional divisions between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite powerhouse Iran, Hezbollah’s patron.
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran earlier this year after protesters angry over the kingdom’s execution of influential Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and another diplomatic mission in Iran.
In addition to diplomatic pressures, Saudi Arabia has just finished a three-week long counter-terrorism drill dubbed “Northern Thunder” that included 20 participating countries, in what observers say was a show of force by the kingdom against its foes. It also sent a strategic message to Iran, and extremist Sunni groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.