BEIRUT – Lebanon on Wednesday sought a dialogue with Saudi Arabia to resolve an unprecedented diplomatic rift over a Lebanese Cabinet minister’s comments, even as new reasons for tension emerged.
The spat unfolded over statements by the Lebanese Information minister aired last week about the war in Yemen, which Lebanese officials have said do not represent official government views.
Riyadh angrily recalled its ambassador and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave. It also banned Lebanese imports, undermining the small nation’s foreign trade and depriving it of millions of dollars while it is deep in an economic crisis.
Gulf countries have joined Saudi Arabia in pulling out their diplomats, sharpening the diplomatic slap.
Despite the calls for mediation and dialogue, there is no sign of the crisis letting up.
Instead, new reasons for tension emerged, following leaks by a Saudi paper in which the Lebanese foreign minister, apparently in off-the-cuff remarks to Lebanese reporters, said drug smuggling out of Lebanon would not have happened if there was no market in Saudi Arabia.
The comments, apparently made at the outset of the crisis, were interpreted by Saudi media as an endorsement of the smuggling, which had been another reason for the tension with Lebanon.
Since the crisis, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib in comments to the press had said Riyadh is being too harsh on Lebanon. He did not deny the leaked comments Wednesday in a statement, but said he had wished the Saudi paper would have helped in resolving the crisis “instead of publishing partial and wrong narratives” that only complicate matters.
In separate comments following a meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun Wednesday, Bouhabib said any problems between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia should be resolved through dialogue. He added that Lebanon, which is going through one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, is looking for support from its neighbors to overcome “the difficult circumstances it is going through” and the hardship its people are facing.
“We are certain that joint Arab interests will overrule what happened in the last few days and there will be no spilling of oil over the fire,” Bouhabib said.
He also appealed to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries to respect Lebanon’s freedom of expression and democracy, which he said are not intended to harm relations with Lebanon’s neighbors and friendly nations.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese minister of information at the center of the crisis, George Kordahi, has refused to apologize or step down, saying his remarks about the Yemen war, which were recorded before he took the post in September, were not meant to offend.
At the heart of the crisis is Saudi Arabia’s frustration with the growing role of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Riyadh is locked into a regional power rivalry with Tehran, which it accuses of backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen along its borders. Over the years, Saudi Arabia, once a close ally, it has lost its influence and clout in Lebanon.