BEIRUT - 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 the country's 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.
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, in its third year with more than 93,000 people killed, has pitted overwhelmingly Sunni rebels against Assad's regime, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.