Saudi, Kuwait and Bahrain summon Lebanese ambassadors over minister's 'Bedouin' comments

Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister on Monday suggested the Gulf states had helped to fund ISIS

Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's newly appointed foreign minister is seen at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Powered by automated translation

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain has summoned the Lebanese ambassadors and handed them protest notes after the country’s caretaker foreign minister made derogatory remarks aimed at the kingdom and suggested it had helped fund the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The Saudi foreign ministry said it handed over a memorandum to the ambassador, officially protesting “the offence” committed by Charbel Wehbe.

“These statements violate the most basic diplomatic norms and doesn’t fit in the context of the historic relations between brotherly people,” a statement from the ministry read.

Bahrain and Kuwait also summoned the Lebanese ambassador and Charge d’affaires respectively and handed them protest notes.

Bahrain "strongly condemned" the Lebanese minister’s comments, according to a foreign ministry statement carried by the state news agency.

“These comments contradict with the basic diplomatic norms and are not compatible with the brotherly relations between the [gulf] cooperation council’s countries and the brotherly Lebanese people,” the statement said.

Kuwait's foreign ministry also expressed in a statement its “strong condemnation and denunciation” of the “profound offences” made by the foreign minister, state news agency, Kuna, said.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun was quick to distance himself from Mr Wehbe, who once served as his diplomatic advisor, saying on Tuesday that Lebanon was keen to maintain good relations with Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.

“The presidency considers that the foreign minister’s remarks express his personal opinion, and in no way reflect the position of the Lebanese state and its President General Michel Aoun, who is keen on rejecting any offence against friendly countries in general and Saudi Arabia and Gulf states in particular,” Mr Aoun’s office said.

In a televised interview late on Monday night, Mr Wehbe was heard calling a Saudi guest a "Bedouin" as he rushed to leave the studio over what he said were insults directed at Mr Aoun.

The Saudi guest was criticising the president for empowering the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group Hezbollah and providing a political cover that enabled the party to strengthen its grip over the Lebanese government.

“I won’t accept this. I’m in Lebanon and I’m being insulted by a Bedouin,” Mr Wehbe said in a derogatory reference to nomadic Arab tribes that have historically inhabited the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Middle East.

Mr Wehbe also accused “countries of love, friendship and fraternity” of “planting the Islamic State 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.

When pressed whether Gulf states had funded ISIS, Mr Wehbe answered with another question: “Who funded them then, was it me?"

His remarks caused a social media uproar in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and drew sharp criticism from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who warned of repercussions from Mr Wehbe's comments for Lebanon's already strained ties with Arab states.

Mr Fadel Abu Al Ainayn recalled Saudi Arabia’s main role in brokering the Taef Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and highlighted the kingdom’s billions of dollars in financial aid to successive Lebanese governments.

“Here’s a list of some of the contributions of Saudi Arabia (the country of Bedouins),” Mr Abu Al Ainayn tweeted outlining the kingdom’s financial contributions to Lebanon over the years.

Others questioned Mr Wehbe’s motives and warned his remarks could have a negative impact on over 300,000 Lebanese expats working in Saudi Arabia.

“Are your statements in the interest of expatriates whom you represent as minister?” asked Mr Abdel Rahman Bin Musaad Bin Abdel Aziz.

Such concerns were shared by many Lebanese on Twitter.

“This is an insult to Arab countries and a slap to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in GCC countries. Charbel Wehbe, the leaders of those countries are offering their citizens life and stability. What are you offering other than disappointments in Lebanon?” Lebanese journalist Neshan Der Haroutiounian tweeted.

Mr Hariri, whose deteriorating relationship with the president has complicated efforts to form a Cabinet, blamed Mr Aoun for undermining Lebanon’s relations with Gulf countries which have traditionally provided the country with financial support.

"As if the crises that the country is drowning in and the boycott it is suffering from is not enough," Mr Hariri's office said in a statement referring to the ban that Saudi Arabia introduced on the import of Lebanese fruits and vegetables over drug trafficking into the kingdom.

The president, a staunch ally of the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, accused Mr Hariri without naming him of seeking to undermine Lebanon’s friendly ties with Gulf countries despite the minister’s clarifications.

In this photo released by Lebanese government, Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri, speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, March. 22, 2021. Talks on the formation of a new Cabinet in Lebanon collapsed Monday, heralding more economic and financial collapse for the small Arab country. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)
Lebanon's prime minister-designate Saad Hariri warned of the negative repercussions Mr Wehbe’s comments could have on Lebanon’s ties with Gulf states. AP

Mr Wehbe said on Tuesday he was taken aback by the interpretation of his remarks.

“I was surprised by some of the statements issued in Lebanon that distort my remarks and fuel tensions in relations with the kingdom and Gulf states in a bid to achieve personal interests at the expense of Lebanon's,” he said.

But on Tuesday it appeared the damage caused by Mr Wehbe's comments would not be easily undone. The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation "strongly decried the derogatory and racist statements" made by Mr Wehbe, saying they were also offensive to other GCC States.

"The Lebanese ambassador to the UAE was summoned by the MoFAIC and handed over a note of protest denouncing the Lebanese minister's remarks, which, the ministry affirmed, fly in the face of all diplomatic norms," said the official Emirates' news agency, WAM.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning Cabinet since the collapse of Mr Diab's government last August following the explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital.

Mr Wehbe was appointed as Lebanon's foreign minister in August, hours after his predecessor's surprise resignation and a week before the government collapsed.

His appointment came after predecessor Nassif Hitti resigned in protest of the government's failure to tackle the country's political and economic crisis.

Hours after his resignation, Mr Aoun and Mr Diab agreed to appoint Mr Wehbe to the post.

Mr Diab said on Tuesday he asked Mr Wehbe to clarify his latest remarks and called for a new page in relations with Gulf states "that have long stood by Lebanon".

The political paralysis has accentuated one of the worst economic and financial crises to engulf Lebanon since 2019, with the international community and Gulf states shying away from providing financial support given a lack of reform and Hezbollah's tightening grip on the country.