Lebanon's new foreign minister named after Charbel Wehbe resignation over TV comment outrage

Several GCC states lodged diplomatic protests over comments made by the caretaker minister that appeared to suggest the Gulf was responsible for ISIS

Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister, has made rather undiplomatic remarks in a TV interview. Reuters
Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister, has made rather undiplomatic remarks in a TV interview. Reuters

Lebanon’s caretaker deputy prime minister and defence minister has been appointed to replace Charbel Wehbe, the caretaker foreign minister who quit earlier in the day after sparking a diplomatic row with the GCC.

President Michel Aoun and caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab signed a decree appointing Zeina Akar as acting foreign minister hours after Mr Wehbe asked both officials to relieve him of his duties.

In an interview this week, Mr Wehbe appeared to suggest that Gulf states were responsible for the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, leading Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE to summon the Lebanese representatives to their countries to express outrage.

"President Aoun received Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe who handed him a letter asking to relieve him of his duties," the Lebanese presidency tweeted on Wednesday.

“In light of the recent developments and the circumstances that accompanied the interview … and since I’m keen to ensure that my remarks are not exploited to offend Lebanon and the Lebanese … I presented [to President Michel Aoun] a request to be relieved of my duties and responsibilities as Minister of Foreign Affairs,” Mr Wehbe was quoted as saying by the president’s office.

In the interview on Monday, he accused “countries of love, friendship and fraternity” of “planting ISIS in the plains of Nineveh and Anbar and Palmyra”, in reference to territory seized by the extremists in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

Asked by the TV host if he was referring to Gulf states, Mr Wehbe declined to name any country.

Mr Wehbe, once a diplomatic adviser to Mr Aoun, also called a Saudi guest on the show a Bedouin for what he said were insults directed at Mr Aoun.

His remarks prompted Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain on Tuesday to summon the Lebanese ambassadors to lodge an official protest over the comments.

The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation "strongly decried the derogatory and racist statements [made by Mr Wehbe] … against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other GCC states".

The ministry said Mr Wehbe’s comments “fly in the face of all diplomatic norms and are inconsistent with the historical relations between Lebanon and all GCC states”.

As well as the diplomatic outrage, the comments drew a sharp rebuke from Mr Aoun’s political rivals with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri warning of repercussions for Lebanon’s already strained ties with Arab states.

But on Wednesday, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al Bukhari denied reports that the kingdom is planning to retaliate by deporting Lebanese residents.

His remarks followed visits by Lebanese officials and religious figures to the Saudi embassy to express solidarity with the kingdom.

Mr Al Bukhari met caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi and Mufti Abdelatif Derian, Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious leader, and a delegation of the Lebanese Forces, one of the country’s major Christian parties among other politicians. The meetings took place in a tent-like structure erected on the premises of the Saudi embassy.

The diplomatic row with Gulf states, Lebanon’s traditional allies, threaten to further compound the country’s economic woes. The economic and financial crisis engulfing the nation since 2019 leaves more than half the population in poverty.

The international community, including Arab states, pressed Lebanon’s leader to quickly form a Cabinet that undertakes reform in exchange for financial aid. But despite the urgency, Mr Aoun, a staunch ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, and Mr Hariri remain at loggerheads over the Cabinet make-up and its reform agenda, leaving the country without a fully functioning government since the explosion that killed 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital in August.

Updated: May 20, 2021 01:36 PM

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