Lebanese FM’s hostile remarks about Gulf add new tensions with Riyadh

President Michel Aoun said the minister’s comments were his “personal opinion” and praised “brotherly” ties with the Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry summoned Lebanon’s ambassador on Tuesday to hand over a memorandum protesting against “offenses” made by Wehbe.
Tuesday 18/05/2021
A file picture shows acting Lebanese foreign minister Charbel Wahbe speaking at the foreign ministry in Beirut. (AFP)
A file picture shows acting Lebanese foreign minister Charbel Wahbe speaking at the foreign ministry in Beirut. (AFP)

BEIRUT--Lebanon’s president said on Tuesday the caretaker foreign minister Charbel Wehbe’s critical comments about Gulf states did not reflect official policy, seeking to avoid a further strain on ties with countries that have been Lebanon’s allies and donors.

Wehbe threatened to stoke new tensions in a television interview on Monday, when he appeared to blame the Gulf countries for the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and neighbouring Syria without offering any evidence of his claims.

“Those countries of love, friendship and fraternity, they got us the Islamic State and planted it in the plains of Nineveh and Anbar and Palmyra,” Wehbe said in an interview with regional network Al Hurra, referring to parts of neighbouring Syria and Iraq that Islamic State seized in 2014.

When asked if by “those countries” he meant Gulf states, Wehbe said he did not want to name names. But on a question about whether Gulf states had funded the Islamist movement he said: “who funded them then, was it me?”

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry summoned Lebanon’s ambassador on Tuesday to hand over a memorandum protesting against what it described as “offenses” made by Wehbe.

The caretaker foreign minister said on Tuesday his comments were misrepresented and President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian like Wehbe and also an ally of Hezbollah, said the minister’s comments were his “personal opinion” and praised “brotherly” ties with the Gulf.

But others were swift to criticise Wehbe.

Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni prime minister-designate now trying to form a cabinet, admonished Wahbe as he stressed that Arab support was vital.

“As if the crises that the country is drowning in and the boycott it is suffering from are not enough,” he said.

Mired in its worst economic mess since a 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon has lost the financial backing it once relied on from wealthy Sunni Gulf states that are increasingly frustrated at the rising influence of Hezbollah, a Lebanese group backed by their rival, Shia Iran.

Riyadh announced last month the suspension of the fresh produce shipments from Lebanon, saying they were being used to hide drugs and accusing Beirut of inaction.

The decision deprived Lebanese growers of one of their top export destinations, in a country already mired in its worst economic crisis in decades.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun appealed to Riyadh to reexamine the ban.

Crushed by debt, Lebanon’s economy has imploded, sending its currency into tailspin. A massive blast at Beirut port in August added to its woes, prompting the last government to resign. It is now acting in a caretaker role.

Months later, politicians in the fractious, sectarian system are still squabbling over new appointments.

Western donors, led by France, which also previously bailed out Lebanon, want a cabinet of technocrats before releasing aid.

Mass protests in 2019 had also called for sweeping out the old elite, many of whom have held top posts for years.

Hariri, who like his assassinated father has led several cabinets, has yet to announce a new line up in a country where the prime minister should be a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shia and president a Christian.