Words from the Lebanese minister incite the region

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BEIRUT – Lebanese politicians attempted to resolve a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries on Saturday after comments from a Lebanese cabinet minister about the war in Yemen fueled their anger.

Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates followed the Saudis with measures against Lebanon and increased pressure on a troubled country that urgently needs foreign aid amid a devastating economic and financial crisis.

The dispute is one of the worst rifts between the Gulf States and Lebanon in years. Relations are strained due to the growing Iranian influence in the small nation where Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a powerful ally.

On Saturday afternoon, the Saudi ambassador to Beirut Waleed Bukhari flew home after his removal from his government, said airport officials in Beirut.

Bukhari’s departure came a day after Saudi Arabia ordered the Lebanese ambassador in Riyadh to leave within 48 hours and banned all imports from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has been a huge market for Lebanese products for decades.

The steps came after the Arab League leader expressed concern over deteriorating relations between Lebanon and the affluent Gulf states over comments made by Information Minister George Kordahi.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We demand that all diplomatic channels between the parties remain open in order to ensure meaningful dialogue on the urgent problems facing Lebanon.”

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said Prime Minister Najib Mikati was in contact with foreign officials who asked him not to consider resigning. The minister added that he was in contact with the Americans to help resolve the crisis.

Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told US-based Arabic-language Alhurra TV that Mikati had asked the international community, especially the US, to help resolve the crisis and to open up space for dialogue with Saudi Arabia on any issues at stake .

Kordahi described the war in Yemen on a television program filmed in August and aired this week as aggression by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He called the war “absurd” and said it had to stop because he opposed wars between Arabs.

Kordahi, a former television presenter, made the comments before he was selected for the post in September. Kordahi is close to the Christian Marada movement, an ally of the militant Hezbollah group.

Yemen has been ravaged by civil war since 2014 when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels captured the capital Sanaa and much of the north of the country. This forced the internationally recognized government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.

A coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the war with the support of the United States in March 2015 in an attempt to bring the government back to power. Despite a relentless aerial campaign and ground fighting, the war has largely turned into a stalemate, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

On Saturday evening, Kordahi visited Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon to consult on the matter, but made no comments afterwards. Kordahi had previously refused to apologize as his comments were not offensive to the kingdom.

Kuwait had previously instructed the Lebanese chargé d’affaires to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Saturday to leave the emirate within two days.

Later on Saturday, the United Arab Emirates’ state news agency WAM reported on Twitter that it would withdraw its diplomats from Lebanon in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. It added that the consular and visa section at its embassy in Lebanon would continue to operate.

The tweet also said that Emiratis would be “prevented” from traveling to Lebanon.

The Qatari Foreign Ministry followed suit with a statement setting out its “astonishment and denunciation” of the statements and calling on Lebanon to “calm the situation and heal the rift”.

Several government officials met in Beirut on Saturday to discuss the crisis, which is likely to have a significant impact on Lebanon. According to Bouhabib, the US Embassy Deputy Head of Mission Richard Michaels briefly attended the meeting at the State Department in Beirut.

“You can help solve these problems,” Bouhabib said of the United States.

Bouhabib canceled his visit to Glasgow, Scotland, where he was supposed to attend a UN climate summit to tackle the crisis with the oil-rich Gulf states. He said Mikati would go to Glasgow to discuss the crisis with foreign dignitaries.

President Michel Aoun said in a statement on Saturday that Lebanon wanted the best relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said in Cairo that the crisis caused by Kordahi’s remarks had resulted in a “major setback” for Lebanon’s relations with the Gulf States.

He called on the Lebanese President and Prime Minister to take “necessary steps” to ease tensions, particularly with Saudi Arabia.

Aboul-Gheit also urged golf officials to review measures that could have a negative impact on Lebanon’s already ailing economy.

Information on this article was contributed by Samy Magdy, Jon Gambrell, and Sarah El Deeb of The Associated Press.


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