Lebanese president says he wants ‘best relations’ with Saudis

Lebanese President Michel Aoun calls for dialogue in an attempt to ease a diplomatic rift with the Gulf countries as the UAE becomes the latest to sever diplomatic ties.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun said he wants to 'maintain good communication with the kingdom and with the rest of the Gulf states' [File: Dalati Nohra via Reuters]

Lebanese politicians are scrambling to resolve a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) followed Riyadh with measures against Beirut to protest against comments by a cabinet minister about the war in Yemen.

President Michel Aoun said on Saturday he was keen to establish the “best relations” with Saudi Arabia, the National News Agency reported, while cabinet ministers held a crisis meeting to address the escalating diplomatic row.

Aoun also said he wants to institutionalise relations with the Gulf monarchy through the signing of bilateral agreements, according to the NNA, so that “the positions and opinions issued by some do not affect them, and cause a crisis between the two countries, especially since this issue has been repeated more than once”.

The crisis stemmed partly from a televised interview aired last week in which Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi criticised the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in Yemen, saying the Iran-aligned Houthis are “defending themselves … against an external aggression”.

Kordahi, who has the support of Iran-backed Hezbollah, said the interview had been recorded more than a month before he was appointed minister. He has so far declined to apologise or resign over the comments.

The comments have dealt the worst blow to Saudi-Lebanese relations since former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s detention in Riyadh in 2017.

Saudi Arabia on Friday recalled its envoy to Beirut and ordered Lebanon’s envoy to Riyadh out, while also banning all imports coming from Lebanon. Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit, giving the top Lebanese diplomats 48 hours to exit.

‘Solidarity with Saudi Arabia’

The UAE also announced on Saturday that it would pull its diplomats from Lebanon “in solidarity with the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and said it would prevent its citizens from travelling to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Saturday that the latest crisis has its origins in a Lebanese political setup that reinforces Hezbolla’s dominance.

“I think the issue is far broader than the current situation,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told the Reuters news agency in a phone interview. “I think it’s important that the government in Lebanon or the Lebanese establishment forges a path forward that frees Lebanon from the current political construct, which reinforces the dominance of Hezbollah.”

He said this setup “is weakening state institutions within Lebanon, in a way that makes Lebanon continue to process in a direction against the interests of the people of Lebanon”.

In Beirut, several government ministers held a nearly three-hour meeting on Saturday evening to discuss the issue.

Education Minister Abbas Halabi reportedly told the meeting that the government could not afford to resign over the diplomatic dispute.

“The country cannot be left without a government” because of other pressing matters, and will continue to work to resolve the rift, Halabi said.

The diplomatic row has spurred calls by some top politicians for Kordahi’s resignation, while others opposed such a move.

Kordahi stepping down would have knock-on effects that could threaten Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s coalition government, tasked with addressing a financial crisis the World Bank considers one of the worst in modern history.

His resignation could push ministers backed by Hezbollah and its Amal ally to follow suit at a time when the government is already paralysed by a dispute over an inquiry into the August 2020 port explosion.

‘Irresponsible’

On Saturday evening, Kordahi visited Cardinal Bechara Rai, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic church, to consult him on the matter but gave no comments afterwards.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib, who chaired Saturday’s “crisis cell” meeting, told the Associated Press news agency that Mikati is in contact with foreign officials who have asked him not to think about resigning.

The minister added that he is in contact with the United States to help solve the crisis.

The US State Department said in a statement: “We urge that all diplomatic channels remain open between the parties to ensure meaningful dialogue on the pressing issues facing Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, Qatar on Saturday dismissed Kordahi’s comments as “irresponsible”, while also calling on the Lebanese government to take urgent measures to rebuild bridges between “brotherly nations”.

Oman also expressed regret over worsening relations between some Arab countries and Lebanon and called on all parties to exercise restraint and avoid escalation, according to a statement by its foreign ministry.

The Arab League previously expressed concern about the rapid deterioration of Lebanese-Gulf relations and appealed to Gulf countries “to reflect on the measures proposed to be taken … in order to avoid further negative effects on the collapsing Lebanese economy”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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