Lebanon’s foreign minister has asked the president to be relieved of his duties, the presidency said, after his televised comments appearing to blame Gulf states for the rise of ISIL (ISIS) caused a diplomatic firestorm.
“Those countries of love, friendship and fraternity, they brought us Islamic State,” Charbel Wehbe, who is a minister in the caretaker government, told Alhurra TV on Monday, without naming the countries.
Wehbe made the comment during a verbal duel with a Saudi guest on the show, who blamed Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun for “handing over” his country to the Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah, which is backed by Riyadh’s rival Tehran. Wehbe stormed off the TV set saying he would not be “insulted by a Bedouin”.
Wehbe apologised on Tuesday, saying he did not mean to offend “brotherly Arab countries”.
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”.
The comments have threatened Lebanese efforts amid a deep economic crisis to improve ties with Sunni Muslim Gulf states, which have been reluctant to offer the kind of financial help they once did because of their frustration at the rising influence of Hezbollah.
GCC seeks formal apology
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain summoned Lebanon’s ambassadors and issued formal complaints against the “insulting” remark.
Nayef al-Hajraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), demanded a formal apology from Wehbe to Gulf states for his “unacceptable” remarks.
Faced with a crippling economic crisis, Lebanon’s government also moved swiftly to distance itself from the remarks that angered Riyadh, once a key financial backer of Beirut.
Aoun said the comments were Wehbe’s “personal opinion” and did not reflect the position of the state, as he lauded the “brotherly” ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Lebanon’s outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he had sought an explanation from Wehbe, adding that his country was keen to maintain the “best relations” with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Saad Hariri, the prime minister-designate who owes much of his family fortune to Saudi backing, also criticised Wehbe, saying his remarks were “not in accordance with diplomatic norms”.
Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it was suspending fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon, saying shipments were being used for drug smuggling and accusing Beirut of inaction.
The decision was a blow to Lebanon, which is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.