Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister ought to take a little more care

In a televised interview, Charbel Wehbe tried to alienate Lebanon's allies in the Gulf
Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's newly appointed foreign minister arrives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The job of any foreign minister is difficult enough. It is all the more so in Lebanon, where global powers and neighbouring states seem to have a hand in everything – from food and electricity supplies to deciding who occupies the presidency. Iran and Syria, backers of the powerful Lebanese militia-cum-political party Hezbollah, have helped to militarise Lebanon's political landscape and carve it up along sectarian lines. The US and EU, long-time supporters of the country's civil society, have declined to give it any aid until its politicians kick their corruption habit. And Lebanon's traditional allies in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf, have been reluctant to invest in a country whose political landscape has drifted increasingly towards extremism.

Since August, the man tasked with steering Lebanon's interests across this icy terrain has been Charbel Wehbe, a former civil servant who is close to President Michel Aoun. He is part of a temporary administration – but even for a caretaker foreign minister, his diplomacy has taken remarkably little care. It remains unclear whether he is even sure what Lebanon's interests are. Mr Wehbe's ministry has had little success in taking the country anywhere but closer to Iran – a result, perhaps, of him owing his post to an alliance between Mr Aoun and Hezbollah.

In an interview with the broadcaster Al Hurra on Monday, Mr Wehbe risked further alienating Arabs, when he implied – with little subtlety – that some Gulf countries were responsible for the actions of ISIS in the Levant. He declined to name specific countries explicitly. He then went on to call Saudi Arabia a country of “Bedouins”, as though that were a derogatory term.

The comments have attracted the ire of many Lebanese, who suspect they were intended to isolate Lebanon further from its regional neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, which was a significant investor in the country prior to Hezbollah's ascent to power. The hashtag “Wehbe does not represent me” has trended on social media.

This year, as Lebanon's ongoing economic crisis has plunged the country into a spiral of inflation and debt, pushing more than 50 per cent of its population into poverty, Beirut has tried to repair its relationship with Riyadh. That was made more difficult last month, when a shipment of Syrian and Lebanese agricultural produce to Saudi Arabia was found to contain millions of dollars' worth of illegal drugs thought to have been trafficked under Hezbollah's watch. Saudi Arabia responded by banning all Lebanese agricultural imports, a move that has devastated Lebanon's farming sector. Now, matters have been made worse by Lebanon's own foreign minister.

In an effort to walk back Mr Wehbe's remarks, Mr Aoun said on Tuesday that they did not reflect official policy. Mr Wehbe, for his part, has insisted that his words have been distorted. The Al Hurra interview will no doubt be parsed heavily by many in Lebanon in an effort either to exacerbate or alleviate the damage it could do. Saudi Arabia's government has summoned Lebanon's ambassador to express its own condemnation. As the expression in broadcasting goes, the tape doesn't lie.

For many in Beirut's political class, the consequences of this kind of carelessness with Lebanon's foreign relations are easy to anticipate. As the country's prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, who has thus far been blocked by Mr Aoun from forming a government, put it in an incredulous statement issued by his office about Mr Wehbe's interview: "As if the crises that the country is drowning in and the boycott [of Lebanese produce] it is suffering from is not enough."