Lebanese politicians were in contact with foreign officials Saturday to try to find a solution to a crisis between Lebanon and Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia, triggered by comments of a cabinet minister regarding the war in Yemen.
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates followed the Saudis in recalling their envoys from Lebanon. The punishable measures against Lebanon increase pressure on the small, crisis-hit country badly in need of foreign assistance to help it ease a crippling economic and financial crisis.
Meanwhile, Oman expressed regret over worsening relations between some Arab countries and Lebanon, calling on all parties to exercise restraint and avoid escalation, the foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
LISTEN: Can Israeli climate tech undo decades of neglect?
On Saturday afternoon, Saudi ambassador to Beirut Waleed Bukhari flew home after he was recalled by his government, according to airport officials in Beirut. Bukhari’s departure came a day after Saudi Arabia ordered Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh to leave within 48 hours and banned all imports from Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia has for decades been a huge market for Lebanese products.
The moves came as the Arab League chief expressed concerns about the deterioration of ties between Lebanon and wealthy Gulf countries over statements made by Information Minister George Kordahi.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said Prime Minister Najib Mikati is in contact with foreign officials who asked him not to think about resigning. The minister added that he is in contact with the Americans to help solve the crisis.
Kordahi described — on a TV program filmed in August and aired this week — the war in Yemen as an aggression by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He called the war “absurd,” saying it must stop because he is opposed to wars between Arabs.
- Using Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran feels immune. Israel can change that
- Saudi Arabia is talking to Iran. It’s a potent sign of Riyadh’s desperation
- Saudi Arabia labels Lebanese association a terrorist entity for Hezbollah links
Yemen has been convulsed by civil war since 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels captured the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country. That forced the internationally recognized government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015, backed by the United States, to try to restore the government to power. Despite a relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has deteriorated largely into a stalemate and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
On Saturday evening, Kordahi visited Cardinal Bechara Rai, the head of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church, and discussed the matter with him. Kordahi did not speak to journalists after the meeting. He earlier refused to apologize, saying his comments meant no offense to Saudi Arabia.
Earlier in the day, Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by ordering the Lebanese charge d’affaires on Saturday to leave the emirate within two days. Later Saturday, the United Arab Emirates’ state-run WAM news agency said on Twitter that it would withdraw its diplomats from Lebanon in solidarity with Saudi Arabia.
The tweet also said Emiratis would be "prevented” from traveling to Lebanon. Travel bans have happened previously to Lebanon over politics in the past.
In Beirut, several government officials met Saturday to discuss the crisis that is likely to have major repercussions on Lebanon. The meeting was briefly attended by the U.S. embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Michaels at the foreign ministry in Beirut, according to Bouhabib.
“They can help in solving these problems,” Bouhabib said about the United States.
Bouhabib canceled his visit to Glasgow, Scotland, where he was supposed to attend a U.N. climate summit, to deal with the crisis with the oil-rich Gulf nations. He said Mikati will go to Glasgow where he will discuss the crisis with foreign dignitaries.
President Michel Aoun said in a statement Saturday that Lebanon wants the best relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.
On Friday night, Mikati and Aoun discussed the Saudi decision and asked Kordahi to make the “appropriate decision,” an apparent call for him to resign in hopes it will ease the tension.
Kordahi, a former TV show host, made the comments on a TV program before he was chosen for the post in September. Kordahi is close to the Christian Marada Movement, an ally of the militant Hezbollah group.
Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh told reporters Saturday that it is up to Kordahi to decide whether he will resign or not. He added that Kordahi contacted him and asked whether he should resign “but I refused because he did not make any mistake. Still I am with any decision he takes.”
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said the crisis caused by Kordahi’s comments has led to a “great setback” to Lebanon’s relationship with the Gulf countries.
He urged Lebanon’s president and prime minister to take “necessary steps” to ease the tension, especially with Saudi Arabia. He did not elaborate which steps should be taken.
Aboul-Gheit also called on Gulf officials to review measures that could have negative consequences on Lebanon’s already battered economy.
DPA contributed to this report.