Lebanese president seeks to avert crisis with Gulf over minister's comments


FILE PHOTO: Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's newly appointed foreign minister arrives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon's president said on Tuesday that critical comments made by the foreign minister about Gulf states did not reflect official policy, seeking to avoid further strain on ties with countries that have been Lebanon's allies and donors.

Mired in its worst economic crisis since a 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon has lost the financial backing of wealthy Sunni Muslim Gulf states, which resent the rising influence of Hezbollah, a Lebanese group backed by regional rival Shi'ite Iran.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe stoked tensions in a television interview on Monday, when he appeared to blame Gulf nations for the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"Those countries of love, friendship and fraternity, they brought us Islamic State," he told Al Hurra without naming them.

Wehbe said on Tuesday his comments had been misrepresented and President Michel Aoun, like Wehbe a Maronite Christian and also an ally of Hezbollah, said the minister's comments were his "personal opinion" and praised "brotherly" ties with the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain summoned Lebanon's envoys to their countries over the remarks. Riyadh handed a memorandum of what were described as Wehbe's "offences" and the UAE foreign ministry called his comments "derogatory and racist".

Kuwait denounced Wehbe's remarks calling them "gravely abusive", while Bahrain called them "offensive", both adding that the remarks contradict the fraternal relations that ties the GCC states with Lebanon.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council asked Wehbe to make a formal apology to Gulf states.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the matter said there was an ongoing discussion around a resignation late on Tuesday but that nothing was confirmed yet.

Lebanese politicians also criticised Wehbe.

Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni prime minister-designate now trying to form a Cabinet and whose family's wealth was built up in Saudi Arabia, said Arab support was vital.

"As if the crises that the country is drowning in and the boycott it is suffering from are not enough," he said.

Crushed by debt, Lebanon's economy has imploded, sending its currency into a tailspin. A massive blast at Beirut port last August added to its woes, prompting the last government to resign. It is now acting in a caretaker role.

Politicians in the fractious, sectarian system are still squabbling over new appointments.

Western donors, led by France, which also previously bailed out Lebanon, want a cabinet of technocrats before releasing aid.

Hariri, who like his assassinated father has led several cabinets, has yet to announce a new line-up in a country where the prime minister should be a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite and president a Christian.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Edmund Blair/Gareth Jones and Grant McCool)

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