Offensive statements by Charbel Wahbe drive a wedge between Gulf countries and Lebanon

To try to defuse the crisis, Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister tendered his resignation.

Wednesday 19/05/2021
Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, May 19, 2021.  (REUTERS)
Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, May 19, 2021. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT - Lebanese relations with Gulf countries entered a serious area of turbulence that is expected to have adverse repercussions, not least on the situation of Lebanese expatriates in the Gulf region.

The crisis is the first of its kind since the independence of Lebanon in 1943 and raises questions about the future of about half a million Lebanese citizens working in the Gulf states, including 300,000 in Saudi Arabia alone.

The crisis was sparked by offensive statements about the Gulf states and their respective societies, uttered by the Lebanese caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs Charbel Wahbe, who is perceived as closely linked to President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement.

To try to defuse the crisis sparked by his disparaging remarks, Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister asked the president to relieve him of his duties on Wednesday.

After meeting President Michel Aoun, Wehbe said he had submitted a request to step down “in light of the recent developments and the circumstances that accompanied the interview I gave to a television station”.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain had summoned Lebanon’s ambassadors and issued formal complaints, Tuesday.

The Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, called on the Lebanese minister of foreign affairs to issue an official apology to the GCC states after his “totally unacceptable” remarks.

Lebanese politicians noted that the official reaction put out by the Presidency of the Lebanese Republic did not level any criticism at Wahbe. It asserted only that the caretaker minister was expressing his “personal opinion” hence implicitly condoning  his stance.

A statement from the media office of the Lebanese presidency said, “The remarks by the minister of foreign affairs … expressed the latter’s personal opinion and in no way reflect the position of the Lebanese state and its head, General Michel Aoun, who is keen to reject what is offensive to brotherly and friendly countries in general and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in particular.”

Charbel Wahbe had spent 13 years of his diplomatic career as Lebanon’s ambassador to Venezuela. He maintained a close relationship with former Vice-President Tariq Al-Aissami, who is of Syrian origin and is the subject of US sanctions because of his strong ties to Hezbollah.

Wahbe  was a school teacher before being appointed to an ambassadorial post with the backing of Michel Aoun.

The caretaker foreign minister appeared on a television programme on the US government’s Alhurra satellite channel and staunchly defended Hezbollah and its armaments policy  following remarks by Saudi political analyst Salman Al-Ansari, also a participant in the programme, who criticised the militant Shia party and accused it of imposing its hegemony on Lebanese policy-making.

A file picture shows Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun speaking during a news conference at the presidential palace in Baabda. (REUTERS)
A file picture shows Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun speaking during a news conference at the presidential palace in Baabda. (REUTERS)

The Lebanese top diplomat then proceeded to accuse the Arab Gulf states of being behind the arrival of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Wahbe did not mention any Gulf countries by name. He referred to them as “countries of love,” then expressed his contempt for “Bedouins”.  This was considered by Gulf officials as an insult to their societies.

While Lebanese politicians, led by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, unanimously condemned the words of the foreign minister, the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs summoned the Lebanese ambassador in Riyadh and delivered a strongly-worded message denouncing Wahbe’s remarks.

Hariri’s media office said Wahbe’s comments “have nothing to do with diplomacy and constitute a new round of absurdity and recklessness in foreign policy” during Aoun’s era causing “the most severe consequences for Lebanon and the interests of its people in the Arab countries.”

A Lebanese politician said that President Aoun found himself in a delicate predicament  after the foreign minister’s statements. He was expected to push Wahbe out and ask him to quit in agreement with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

Wahbe said a few hours after his TV appearance, that he was “surprised by the inaccurate explanations and interpretations of his words.”

He denied that he was referring to “the brothers in the Gulf states,” and added that he “did not mention by name any country.”

Lebanon watchers say that Wahbe’s utterances indicate that some Lebanese, who are prudent by nature when it comes to their interests, have come to believe that the Gulf countries will not return to Lebanon and that the fate of Lebanon is now linked to Iran.

Analysts consider that these statements are likely to drive a wedge between Lebanon and the Gulf states on top of the silent tensions already affecting their relations due to the support voiced by many within the Lebanese elite for Hezbollah and Iran.

They point out that this alignment does not take into account the country’s foreign interests and its relationship with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

These observers indicate that public opinion in Gulf countries now holds that Lebanon no longer deserves Gulf support nor investments as long as the population there is supportive of Hezbollah’s weapons and of Iran, despite Tehran’s hostility to Saudi Arabia and its threats to Gulf national security in different places, including Lebanon and Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is no longer enthusiastic about Lebanon nor certain Lebanese circles in their drive to offset the influence Hezbollah and Iran. This is illustrated by the decline of Riyadh’s confidence in Saad Hariri and its bet on him. It also often tells the Lebanese, who seek its support, of its past unreciprocated largesse.

Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence Prince Khalid bin Salman, reminded the Lebanese of this equation when he said in January of last year, “We have always been the constructive and useful party. We send tourists to Lebanon, while Iran sends terrorists. We send businessmen while Iran sends military advisors. We build hotels, the tourism sector and we create jobs while Iran creates terrorism.”

At a time when the Saudis have abandoned the idea of providing support to friendly countries that do not espouse clear positions in support of Riyadh’s foreign policy, many Lebanese figures are still reaching out for support from Saudi Arabia, but are at the same time forging alliances with Hezbollah and defending its positions and policies and expressing hostility towards its critics.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, considered that “Wahbe was supposed to be the foreign minister of Lebanon and the Lebanese, so he ended up being the foreign minister of Hezbollah.”

Geagea pointed out that after the July 2006 war, “the Saudis and the Gulf countries came to help Lebanon and contributed billions of dollars to rebuild what was destroyed by a war that the Lebanese state did not decide, but rather was imposed on it”.  Moreover the people of the Gulf “provided Lebanon with billions of dollars in various infrastructure and development projects, in addition to deposits in the Central Bank of Lebanon,”not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who “are still working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states until this moment. ”