DUBAI (Reuters) - Ahmed, a Lebanese worker living in the United Arab Emirates, closed down his Facebook page and started to shun some of his compatriots.
His intention was to sever all links to people associated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah after Gulf Arab states classified the Shi‘ite Muslim organization as a terrorist group.
Ahmed, a medical worker in his early 50s who declined to give his full name, is not alone.
Anxiety and apprehension are unsettling many of the up to 400,000 Lebanese workers living in the Gulf after last month’s announcement by the Gulf Cooperation Council - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
The rich states, where Lebanese have worked for generations, some achieving wealth and influence, have threatened to imprison and expel anyone linked to the Iranian-allied group that fights in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
The GCC move on Hezbollah is part of a struggle pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi‘ite regional heavyweight Iran. The rivals back different factions in Lebanon where Hezbollah wields enormous political influence as well as having a powerful military wing.
Hassan Elian, who heads an association campaigning for Lebanese deportees from the Gulf, said about 100 had been ejected from Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE in the past two months. There are no official figures to corroborate this.
While that total may appear small, the expulsions caused widespread fears amongst Lebanese expatriates, who send back about $2.5 billion to Lebanon a year, that they are vulnerable.
Some have expressed worries that they might not be expelled but their residency permits might not be renewed if they are suspected of being sympathetic to Hezbollah.
Questioned about the possibility of further expulsion of Lebanese workers from GCC countries because of their relationship with Hezbollah, a Lebanese foreign ministry official said the Beirut government was following the matter.
“PEOPLE ARE AFRAID”
Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been plunged into crisis since Riyadh halted $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese army - a response to the Beirut government’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
The row raised concern for Lebanon’s political and economic stability by exacerbating tensions between its Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims and had already prompted concerns about the livelihoods of Lebanese expatriates in the Gulf.
It is not just Shi‘ite Lebanese who feel under scrutiny.
“We have no political activity, but we do support Hezbollah because it is a resistance movement against Israel,” said Hassan, a civil servant working in Kuwait, one of only a few Lebanese who agreed to comment for this article.
“Many Lebanese are worried because of the recent measures,” Hassan, who asked that his family name not be used, told Reuters.
Hassan said some have refrained from buying new possessions because of fears for the future, while others planned to send their families home.
Deportees declined to be interviewed, fearful for relatives still in the Gulf or hoping to return when tensions between Lebanon and the GCC calm down.
Ahmed, the medic, said he knows other people who have closed their Facebook accounts because they were afraid that they would be targeted for being friends with someone from Hezbollah.
“People are afraid, and I am afraid too,” said Ahmed. “We would love to go back to Lebanon, but there are no jobs, especially now when so many refugees are jostling for work.”
“I have recently renewed my residency without any problem, but I still don’t feel safe,” he added.
In Lebanon, stories circulate about cases of Lebanese expelled over their relatives’ social media posts deemed to show sympathy for Hezbollah.
For the Lebanese expatriate community, expulsion means leaving a job in the most stable and prosperous region in the Arab world and loss of income, usually used to support poorer extended family members back home.
Deportation also means returning to a country overburdened with Syrian refugees and where jobs are hard to find.
Adding to the atmosphere of fear pervading the Lebanese expatriate community working in the Gulf is a lack of clarity about what sort of information is viewed by the authorities as evidence of links to or sympathy with Hezbollah.
Some worry the information used could be arbitrary - such as the websites or television channels their families use.
Expatriates say the broad warning issued by the Saudi interior ministry in a message carried by state news agency SPA in March makes anyone subject to punishment, regardless of their nationality or faith.
Bahrain last month deported several Lebanese residents suspected of links to or supportive of Hezbollah, while Kuwaiti media has said that 11 Lebanese and three Iraqis also suspected of belonging to Hezbollah were expelled.
There have been no official reports of deportations from either Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar or Oman.
Saudi Arabia has told its citizens that anyone with Hezbollah links, or who supports or sympathizes with the group faces punishment, including deportation for expatriates.[nL5N16L0VD]
Reinforcing that message, Saudi authorities last month detained a local Shi‘ite cleric, Sheikh Hussein al-Radhi, after he publicly praised Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Analysts said the GCC decision to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group was aimed primarily at choking off financial interests in the Gulf controlled by the group which the GCC has blamed for working against them in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The GCC had already imposed sanctions on Hezbollah after it entered Syria’s war to fight with President Assad.
GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani said the council would “take the necessary measures to implement its decision ... based on anti-terrorism laws applied in the GCC and similar international laws”.
Zayani did not specify what action might follow, but Saudi Arabia, the biggest power in the grouping, before the announcement said it had blacklisted four companies and three Lebanese men for having links to Hezbollah.
The GCC accused Hezbollah of committing “hostile acts” against GCC states, including recruiting young men to carry out “terrorist attacks, smuggling weapons and explosives, stirring up sedition and incitement to chaos and violence”.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Harby in Kuwait, Laila Bassam in Lebanon, Angus McDowall in Riyadh and Ali Abdelaty in Cairo; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by William Maclean and Peter Millership