Lebanon Foreign Minister Steps Down Over Saudi Insults

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Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister asked Wednesday to be relieved of his duties after disparaging remarks he made about Saudi Arabia and its people prompted a political backlash.

Saudi Arabia summoned the Lebanese ambassador on Tuesday to complain about “insulting” comments made by Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe during a television interview. Wehbe appeared to blame Gulf nations for the rise of extremist groups such as Islamic State and dismissed their people as Bedouins, an implication that they were uncultured, during a heated debate with Saudi political analyst Salman Al-Ansari.

“In order for what I said not to be exploited to harm Lebanon and the Lebanese, I met with the president and requested that I be exempted from my duties as foreign minister,” Wehbi, who is an ally of President Michel Aoun, told reporters after the meeting.

Oil-rich Gulf nations were once Lebanon’s main financial benefactors. Saudi Arabia even helped broker the deal that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, but ties have become increasingly strained as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group has gained political and military influence over a fragile country that straddles the region’s political fault lines.

The relationship deteriorated further after Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, was elected president in 2016. With financial aid no longer forthcoming and political divisions hampering much-needed economic reforms, Lebanon’s banking system imploded in 2019, taking the economy down with it. The cash-strapped government defaulted on its international debts, the Lebanese lost access to their savings and the currency dropped at least 85% of its value, triggering hyperinflation and pushing over half the population into poverty.

Ties took a turn for the worse in recent weeks because Saudi authorities banned imports of Lebanese fruit and vegetables after discovering large quantities of narcotics concealed in a consignment of pomegranates that had been hollowed out and stuffed with pills. The ban has hit the economy hard as Saudi Arabia is a large market for Lebanese food exports and one of the few ways businesses can earn hard currency to help them weather the financial hardship.

Social Media Backlash

Wehbe’s comments drew criticism on social media, from Gulf officials and from many Lebanese, who have lived and worked in the Gulf in large numbers for decades.

A Saudi Royal Court adviser, Turki Alalshikh, responded to Wehbi by saying he was proud of his country’s Bedouin and Islamic heritage. Some Saudi Twitter users shared a picture of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman sitting at table in an Arabian tent. Others asked authorities to expel Lebanese working in the kingdom, an estimated 350,000.

Lebanese politicians, even opponents of Saudi Arabia, condemned the comments and asked the minister to step down. Saad Hariri, the premier-designate who was once a close Saudi ally, said the remarks were another round of “recklessness in foreign policy that the president and his allies have adopted, sabotaging the country’s interests with Arab states.”

Al-Ansari, the guest who was on the show with Wehbi via video link, criticized efforts by Aoun to distance himself from the incident by saying the comments did not represent the official position of the state or of the president himself.

“If he doesn’t represent Lebanon, he represents something else; he represents Iran and this is the main problem of this political party,” he said, referring to the alliance between Aoun’s party and Hezbollah.

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