By BARBARA SURK, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — When Ali Farhat was summoned to the immigration department in the United Arab Emirates, the 33-year-old Lebanese restaurant worker knew he would have to pack up his family and leave fast.
Like many Shiite Muslims working in the oil-rich Gulf state, Farhat says he popped up on the country's deportation radar merely because of his sect, which its Sunni rulers associate with the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
"I felt like a criminal, but I did not know what I did wrong," said Farhat, who had lived in the UAE for 15 years before his expulsion in May. "It seems that my only crime was that I am Shiite."
Long considered by authorities as a security threat, hundreds of Shiites have been quietly expelled from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states on suspicion of being supporters of Hezbollah. The deportations have surged in recent months after the group publicly joined the civil war in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad, an archenemy of the Gulf's rulers.
It is the latest fallout for Lebanese Shiites from Hezbollah's high stakes and highly divisive military involvement in the war in Syria, and a sign of the growing sectarian fissures in the Arab world over Syria.
Last month, Saudi Arabia announced plans to deport Lebanese who authorities accuse of supporting the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the other Gulf states say they too are reconsidering the status of their Shiite guest workers.
A Lebanese diplomat stationed in the Gulf confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that the stepped-up deportations from Saudi Arabia have begun, adding that he has documented an average of three cases a week in the past three weeks.
Farhat, like hundreds of other deportees, was never given an official reason for his family's expulsion, and was not able to challenge it in court or at a government agency.
Deportees like Farhat are not the only ones bearing the brunt of Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria, where the group's fighters helped Assad's forces recapture the strategic town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, last month.
The group's backing of the Syrian regime has angered the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad and raised sectarian tensions inside Lebanon. Several Syria-based Islamist groups have threatened to attack Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation.
Rockets from the Syrian side regularly crash into Shiite towns and villages near the border with Syria. Twice this month, rockets slammed into the Hezbollah stronghold known as Dahyeh, south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
In the most ominous sign yet that the sectarian war in Syria has begun to consume Lebanon, a car bomb tore through a heavily guarded sector of the area Tuesday, wounding 53 people.
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year with over 93,000 people killed, has pitted overwhelmingly Sunni rebels against Assad's regime, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
It has also become a regional struggle for influence between Shiite Iran on one side and major Sunni power Saudi Arabia on the other, backed by smaller Gulf Arab states.
Ordinary Lebanese like Farhat are paying the price.
"People start living in fear because they always think that they will be next," he told The Associated Press.
He recounted his ordeal on the phone, speaking from a village in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, where he returned with his wife and their young daughter. The family has been forced to move in with his parents.
Farhat's boss and his boss' family were ordered out of the UAE at the same time, he said, adding they were given just a week to pack up. After they were served the deportation order, they were put in a police van and taken to the immigration department. Their residency permits were canceled on the spot, their passports seized by officials. They got the documents back at the airport on their way out of the country.
The expulsion drive is partly fueled by the growing hatred between Sunnis and Shiites. Analysts say it is also rooted in Gulf rulers' need to keep their populations in constant fear of enemies — domestic and foreign — in order to preserve their authoritarian rule.