Lebanon’s FM sees possible breakthrough in diplomatic spat sparked by pro-Houthi minister

Special Lebanese protest in support of Saudi Arabia in front of the Kingdom’s embassy in Beirut on Saturday. AP
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Lebanese protest in support of Saudi Arabia in front of the Kingdom’s embassy in Beirut on Saturday. AP
Special Lebanon’s FM sees possible breakthrough in diplomatic spat sparked by pro-Houthi minister
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People read newspaper headlines at a kiosk in Beirut on Saturday. (Reuters)
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Updated 31 October 2021

Lebanon’s FM sees possible breakthrough in diplomatic spat sparked by pro-Houthi minister

Lebanon’s FM sees possible breakthrough in diplomatic spat sparked by pro-Houthi minister
  • Marada Movement joins Hezbollah and Amal in insisting George Kordahi should not resign over interview remarks

BEIRUT: Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib on Saturday expressed optimism that the diplomatic crisis triggered by the country's information minister would soon be resolved.

George Kordahi's statement — that Yemen's Houthis were only defending themselves — did not sit well with Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen's legitimate government and their allies, who have been fighting the Iran-backed militia since 2015.

The militia seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and other provinces from the UN-recognized government in 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to organize a coalition to contain the threat. Since then, the Houthis had been launching ballistic missiles, rockets and armed drones against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.

As the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement came to Kordahi's defense, the crisis worsened on Saturday, with Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE recalling their ambassadors from Lebanon in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. They also ordered Lebanon’s ambassadors to leave their countries within 48 hours.

Habib’s committee,  tasked by Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resolve the crisis, failed to reach a way out of the scandal during the closed meeting it held on Saturday apparently due to objections by the Marada Movement, to which Kordahi is affiliated.

Richard Michaels, deputy head of the US mission in Lebanon, joined the meeting at Bou Habib’s request but left the meeting half an hour later.

Mikati had asked Kordahi to resign on Friday night, but Marada Movement head Suleiman Frangieh objected.

“If I were to serve my personal and political interest, I would encourage Kordahi to resign as he has offered to submit his resignation at the Baabda Palace and in the Maronite Patriarchate, but I refused because my conscience does not allow me to ask this of a minister who did not make a mistake, but simply gave his opinion in a free country before he was appointed,” he said.

Frangieh added: “We have a firm conviction of wanting excellent relations with the Arab countries. Our position regarding Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries is clear.”

He refused to “sacrifice” Kordahi for anyone, saying that if the minister were to resign or be fired then the movement would not name a replacement.

Nonetheless, Habib mentioned a possible breakthrough in the coming hours. He also pointed to the participation of the US in resolving the crisis.

“I was the one who invited the American diplomat to join the meeting because the Americans can help in asking Saudi Arabia to find a way out,” he said.

Habib dismissed Frangieh’s comments as “political opinions that have nothing to do with our meeting, and we are working technically to solve the crisis.”

US State Department spokesman Samuel Warberg told the Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV station: “The US urges the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and countries in the region to communicate with the Lebanese government.

He said the US government was working with the international community to secure support for the Lebanese government. “We are waiting to see transparency and accountability on the government’s part,” he added.


‘Adding fuel to the fire’

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit expressed his “deep concern and regret over the rapid deterioration in Lebanese-Gulf relations, especially at a time when efforts were made to restore positive ties to help Lebanon overcome the challenges it is facing.”

He said the Lebanese should have handled the crisis caused by Kordahi’s comments “more carefully, instead of adding fuel to the fire.”

Lebanese officials have tried to contain the diplomatic crisis, amid Hezbollah’s insistence that Kordahi should not resign under the pretext of “preserving Lebanese sovereignty and national dignity,” according to a party statement. This position was reiterated by a number of Hezbollah MPs on Saturday.

“Hezbollah and the Amal movement could make their ministers resign from the government if Kordahi were to do so,” the Al Markazia news agency reported.

Former Lebanese Prime Ministers Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri and Tammam Salam denounced “Kordahi’s positions that violate the Arab, diplomatic and moral principles and norms.”

They demanded that he immediately submit his resignation, as his ministerial position now posed “a threat to Lebanese-Arab relations and to Lebanon’s interest.”

They stressed the policy of disassociation they had adopted and warned against “joining the axis led by Iran in the region.”

They said Hezbollah had been interfering and playing a destructive role since its involvement in Arab crises and wars, not to mention its involvement in the Yemen war waged by Iran against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Hariri criticized “the reckless ideas in the name of sovereignty that lead Lebanon to an unprecedented Arab isolation, the price of which the Lebanese people are paying.”

He said: “The responsibility, first and foremost, in this regard lies with Hezbollah, and its professed hostility toward the Arabs and the Arab Gulf states.”

Hariri said: “You want a state with sovereignty and national dignity, so remove Iran’s wing from Lebanon, put an end to arrogant policies and stop threatening the Lebanese with an army that outnumbers the state’s army and its security and military institutions.”

Hezbollah rules

Kataeb Party head Samy Gemayel believed Kordahi’s comments were “proof” of how the country’s political forces had “surrendered” to Hezbollah, allowing it to take over the presidency, government and parliament.

The diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and the Arab Gulf states coincides with one related to Lebanese exports to the Gulf, following the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying the Kingdom had banned all Lebanese imports.

According to statistics from the Lebanese Association of Agriculture, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries import 173,300 tons or 55.4 percent of Lebanon’s total exports of vegetables and fruits.

This means Lebanon will lose $92 million annually under this ban, which is the equivalent of $250,000 per day.

Lebanese economic bodies have criticized “the misfortunes that unexpectedly come upon Lebanon, at a time when the Lebanese are suffering in various aspects of their lives and were waiting for an initiative from the government to pull Lebanon out of the gutter, not ruin Lebanese relations with the Gulf states that have constituted a strategic economic lever for Lebanon over the years.”