BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s acting foreign minister stepped down on Wednesday amid a diplomatic row with Gulf Arab countries after he suggested in a TV interview this week that they had provided backing to extremists, helping the rise of the Islamic State group.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait summoned Lebanese ambassadors in their capitals to protest Charbel Wehbe's remarks during an interview with Alhurra news channel. They accuse Wehbe of violating diplomatic norms and making derogatory and racist statements.
In the interview late Monday, Wehbe said that “friendship and brotherhood countries” brought Islamic State militants to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. When asked if he meant that Gulf countries financed IS, he retorted sharply: “Financed by me then?”
When a Saudi commentator interviewed along with Wehbe criticized Lebanon’s president, the minister became agitated, saying that as a Lebanese, he couldn’t accept being insulted by a “Bedouin” — a term he used derogatorily to describe Gulf Arab nationals. He walked out of the studio but returned to finish the interview.
Wehbe’s remarks came amid already tense relations between Lebanon and traditional ally Saudi Arabia. Only last month, the kingdom banned produce from Lebanon after unveiling a large shipment of amphetamine pills smuggled inside pomegranates.
Saudi Arabia is locked in a regional struggle with Shiite power Iran, the main ally of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group. Riyadh and other GCC countries have imposed sanctions on Hezbollah.
Lebanon's outgoing government resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people. Political disagreements have so far prevented the formation of a new government.
Wehbe said in a brief statement Wednesday that he had met with President Michel Aoun and asked him to relieve him of his duties, “out of concern that these comments be used to defame Lebanon and the Lebanese." It is not clear if a replacement would be named.
Wehbe, whose comments were ridiculed on social media, offered an apology, saying he made the comments while irate over offensive accusations against his president.