Minister quits in bid to defuse Saudi-Lebanon tensions

Published December 4, 2021
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with George Kordahi after his resignation as Information Minister, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on Friday. — Reuters
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with George Kordahi after his resignation as Information Minister, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on Friday. — Reuters

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s information minister resigned on Friday, saying he hoped the much anticipated move will open the way for easing an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries. That crisis has added to immense economic troubles facing Lebanon, already mired in a financial meltdown.

Minister George Kordahi, a prominent former game show host, said he took the decision to step down ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The resignation, Kordahi said at a press conference in the Lebanese capital, may help Macron start a dialogue to help restore Beirut-Riyadh relations.

The crisis erupted following Kordahi’s televised comments aired in October that were critical of Saudi Arabias war in Yemen. The kingdom recalled its ambassador from Beirut and banned all Lebanese imports in response to Kordahi’s remarks, affecting hundreds of businesses and cutting off hundreds of millions in foreign currency to Lebanon.

The minister said he meant no offense with the comments, made before he was appointed to the Cabinet post, and for weeks refused to resign, prolonging the crisis.

“Lebanon is more important than George Kordahi,” he said at the press conference Friday. I hope that this resignation opens the window for better relations with Gulf Arab countries, he added.

The diplomatic spat over Kordahi has aggravated Lebanon’s economic crisis, the worst in its modern history. The countrys financial meltdown, coupled with multiple other crises, has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of 6 million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati welcomed Kordahis resignation, saying it was necessary and could open the door for tackling the problem with the brothers in the kingdom and the Gulf nations.” The standoff with Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of the small Mediterranean country, has further paralysed Lebanon’s government, which has been unable to convene since Oct. 12 amid reports that ministers allied with Hezbollah would resign if Kordahi goes.

The Saudi measures have caused anxiety, particularly among the many Lebanese who work in the Gulf Arab countries, and added to the countrys economic woes. It is not clear whether Kordahis resignation would placate Saudi Arabia enough to reverse its decisions and prevent further escalation, or whether it would open the door for Lebanese Cabinet meetings to resume.

Lebanon’s government is embroiled in another crisis triggered when the country’s Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group protested the course of the state’s investigation into the massive Beirut port explosion last year.

Hezbollah has criticised Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, saying his probe was politicised, and called on the government to ensure his removal. Local media reported there were mediations to trade Bitar’s removal from the probe with Kordahi’s resignation.

Kordahi’s resignation comes ahead of Macron’s visit to Riyadh on Saturday. Macron backs Mikatis government and has taken the lead among the international community in helping the small Mideast country, a former French protectorate.

“I understood that the French want my resignation before Macron visits Riyadh, which would help, maybe in opening the way for dialogue,” Kordahi said.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2021

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