BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates summoned their Lebanese ambassadors Tuesday to protest televised remarks by Lebanon’s foreign minister, in which he suggested Gulf countries provided backing to extremists.
The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, asked that Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe offer a formal apology to member states.
Wehbe’s remarks to the U.S.-backed Alhurra news channel caused a firestorm in Lebanon and among Gulf countries. They came amid already tense relations between Lebanon and traditional ally Saudi Arabia. Only last month, Saudi Arabia banned produce from Lebanon after unveiling a large shipment of amphetamine pills smuggled inside pomegranates.
In remarks late Monday, Wehbe said “friendship and brotherhood countries” brought Islamic State militants to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. When asked if he meant that Gulf countries financed IS, he retorted sharply: “Financed by me then?”
When a Saudi commentator criticized Lebanon’s president, Wehbe fired back, saying as a Lebanese he couldn’t accept being insulted by a “Bedouin,” a term he used derogatorily to describe nationals of Gulf countries. He walked out of the studio but returned to finish the interview.
The comments caused an outcry among many Lebanese, who feared it would sour already tense relations with Gulf countries.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said Wehbe’s comments don’t represent official policy. Aoun’s opponents criticized naming Wehbe as foreign minister, accusing him of lack of experience and diplomacy.
The comments were widely shared and ridiculed on social media. Wehbe issued a statement offering an apology, saying he made the comments while irate over offensive accusations against his president.
But the UAE and Saudi Arabia summoned their Lebanese ambassadors.
In a statement, the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign affairs “strongly decried the derogatory and racist statements” made by Wehbe. It said it handed a note of protest to the Lebanese ambassador denouncing Wehbe’s comments that “fly in the face of all diplomatic norms.” The Saudi Foreign Ministry said the comments were an insult to the Kingdom and its people.
Saudi Arabia, a major supporter of Lebanon, has been locked in a regional struggle with Iran, the main ally of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Tension between the two regional powerhouses have often spilled into a deadlock in decision-making in Lebanese politics. Saudi Arabia is among Gulf countries that imposed sanctions on Hezbollah.
Separately, Lebanon’s political deadlock took a new turn after Aoun, the president, complained to parliament about more than six months of delays as the small country sinks deeper into the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
The letter to the legislature aimed to pressure Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to step down. Aoun and Hariri are locked into power struggle over Cabinet make up and size.
Hariri was tasked by Aoun to form a Cabinet in October after he was named by a majority of lawmakers. But Aoun can’t dismiss him.
“It has become clear that the prime minister-designate is unable to form a government that is capable of salvation and to deal with international financial institutions,” Aoun wrote in the letter to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Aoun asked the parliament’s general assembly to consider his letter. It was not immediately clear when Berri might call lawmakers for a meeting or what might the outcome be.
In March, Aoun called on Hariri to form a government immediately or step aside. Hariri swiftly responded by challenging Aoun to step down himself.
The political deadlock only deepened the country’s woes.
Lebanon’s local currency has been in a free fall since late 2019, losing over 85% of its value. The government defaulted on its foreign debt last year and nearly half the population has been pushed into poverty and unemployment.
Prices of basic goods have increased and inflation has soared. Banks have imposed informal controls on people’s savings and the central bank’s foreign reserves have shrunk in a country dependent on imports.
The outgoing government resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people and damaged entire neighborhoods.