The Saudi-owned television news channel Al Arabiya shut its offices in Lebanon and dismissed 27 employees, two of its journalists said on Friday, in a sudden move that comes amid political tensions between Riyadh and Beirut.
Protesters also attacked the Beirut office of Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Friday in response to a cartoon published by the paper criticizing the Lebanese state.
Saudi Arabia has already cut $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon after the Lebanese government failed to condemn an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January.
The Sunni Gulf monarchy interpreted Lebanon’s lack of public solidarity as a sign that it had become beholden to the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s main regional ally Iran.
“We were informed that the offices have been shut and that 27 employees have been fired,” one Al Arabiya journalist said.
A statement from the channel confirmed that its Beirut office had been shut, describing the move as a restructuring brought about by “challenges on the ground” and citing its concern for the safety of its employees.
Lebanon’s Minister of Information Ramzi Greige dismissed the suggestion of security concerns, however.
“Of course there are no security grounds for closing the Al Arabiya office in Beirut. There may be political reasons for taking this step, but I don’t know until I seek clarification from them,” Greige told Reuters.
Al Arabiya, one of the main Arabic language broadcasters in the Middle East, is part of the privately-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC).
Also on Friday, protesters entered the offices of Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat and left papers and upturned chairs on the floor after the paper published a cartoon depicting the Lebanese flag with the words “an April fool…” written above it.
Inside the flag were the words “the Lebanese state”, which form a rhyming pair in Arabic.
Hampered by sectarian tensions, Lebanon has a weak government and has been without a president for almost two years.
The country, which is hosting just over 1 million registered refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria, has poor infrastructure and public services.
“Al Sharq Al Awsat regrets the commotion caused by the caricature which was circulated today (Friday) and which was wrongly interpreted by some,” the paper said in a statement, saying it respected Lebanon.
“The cartoon aimed to cast light on the situation which the state (Lebanon) finds itself in, as a country which living a big lie caused by attempts to dominate it and distance it from its Arab environment, and to hinder the appointment of a president.”