Lebanese foreign minister quits over Gulf remark controversy

Special Lebanese foreign minister quits over Gulf remark controversy
President Michel Aoun receives Charbel Wehbe’s resignation on Wednesday. (@LBpresidency)
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Updated 19 May 2021

Lebanese foreign minister quits over Gulf remark controversy

Lebanese foreign minister quits over Gulf remark controversy
  • Charbel Whebe could be jailed and fined, says lawyer
  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain summoned Lebanon’s ambassadors

BEIRUT: Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe has quit after provoking widespread anger and condemnation for suggesting that Gulf states were to blame for the rise of Daesh, with lawyers submitting a complaint against him for breaching his duties and “committing crimes that threaten national unity.” 

Wehbe faced a barrage of criticism from all quarters for his remarks, made in a TV interview on Monday, leading Saudi Arabia to hand an official protest note to the Lebanese ambassador and President Michel Aoun distancing himself from the minister.

Wehbe said his decision to step down was in the interest of Lebanon and its people.

“I hope this subject will be closed once and for all and will fade into oblivion to allow the Lebanese relationships with Arab and friendly and brotherly countries to be based on mutual respect,” Wehbe added.

His European tour, which was supposed to start on Thursday, has been canceled and Lebanese Defense Minister Zeina Akar on Wednesday stepped in as caretaker foreign minister. 

Eight Lebanese lawyers submitted a complaint against Wehbe to the Court of Cassation for “breaching functional duties and committing crimes that threaten national unity and Lebanon’s relationships with Arab countries.”

The complaint will be referred to authorities and investigations will be conducted.

Abdulaziz Jomaa was one of the lawyers who submitted the complaint. 

“The penal code allows us to hold accountable those who offend an Arab country, incite strife and attempt to jeopardize the Lebanese relations with Arab and foreign countries,” he told Arab News. “Accountability should not be limited to condemnations in the media, but also through independent judicial institutions because courts are the proper place to address such issues.

“The mere acceptance of our complaint by the Cassation Court is a positive sign. Wehbe does not have any immunity. So he will not be prosecuted before the court of presidents and ministers, but will be prosecuted like the rest of the Lebanese. Wehbe might be sentenced to prison and fined. No minister in Lebanon’s history has ever behaved with such atrocity.”

Political and religious figures flocked to see Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Waleed Bukhari, on Wednesday to condemn Wehbe’s comments and announce their solidarity with the Kingdom.

A large tent was set up to receive visitors and delegations, a clear sign of the attachment to Arab traditions and culture. 

“Saudi Arabia has gained the respect of its allies and opponents in the international community because its political speech is one, in public and in private,” Bukhari told reporters. “What has been circulating about Saudi Arabia’s decision to deport Lebanese expats is not true.”

Those visiting Bukhari reiterated their condemnation of the damage that Wehbe had caused to Lebanon’s relationships with the Arab countries, although politicians and journalists said he should have been sacked.

The secretary-general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said Wehbe’s comments lacked “diplomatic decency” to Gulf countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. 

Following a meeting between the Future Movement’s delegation and Bukhari, lawmaker Bahia Hariri said: “This is a stand of loyalty and regret and I hope it will reach King Salman and the people of the Gulf countries. I think it is the position of all the Lebanese.”

Wehbe’s comments almost caused a diplomatic rift between Lebanon and the Gulf countries, who summoned Lebanese ambassadors and issued formal complaints.

Wehbe had told Al-Hurra TV: “There is a second stage when ISIS (Daesh) came, and the countries of the people of love, friendship, and brotherhood brought them. The countries of love brought us Daesh and planted it for us in the Nineveh Plains, Anbar, and Palmyra.”

When he disliked comments from a Saudi guest during the same interview, Wehbe decided to leave the show and criticized “the Bedouins.”

The firestorm of protest over Wehbe’s remarks led some news outlets to recall previous diplomatic mistakes committed by the current administration, with the price being paid by the Lebanese, while the International Support Group for Lebanon lamented the continuing political deadlock over the formation of a new government. 

“Nine months have passed since the resignation of the government and more than six months since the parliament’s approval of the PM-designate,” it said on Wednesday.

It urged the country’s leaders to set aside their differences in favor of the national interest and to stop delaying the formation of a “fully empowered” government capable of meeting the country’s urgent needs and implementing long-overdue critical reforms. 

“The responsibility for averting a deeper crisis rests with the Lebanese leadership,” it added.