BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s information minister resigned Friday in a bid to ease an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries that has added to Lebanon's multiple crises.
Minister George Kordahi made the announcement at a press conference in Beirut, weeks after televised comments he made that were critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen sparked the crisis.
Saudi Arabia had recalled its ambassador and banned all Lebanese imports in response to Kordahi's initial comments, affecting hundreds of businesses and cutting off hundreds of millions in foreign currency to Lebanon, which is already facing a major economic meltdown. Kordahi had refused to resign over the comments made before he assumed his Cabinet post, prolonging the crisis.
"After some thinking, I decided the time is suitable to offer something that gets Lebanon out of the crisis," Kordahi said Friday. “I hope that this resignation opens the window, or a gap in this wall” for better relations with the Gulf, he added.
Lebanon is sinking deeper into an economic crisis, the worst in its modern history. The country’s financial meltdown, coupled with multiple other crises, has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of 6 million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
The standoff has paralyzed the government, which has been unable to convene since Oct. 12 amid reports that ministers allied with Hezbollah would resign if Kordahi goes.
The Saudi measures have caused anxiety particularly among the many Lebanese who work in Gulf countries, and added to the country’s economic woes. It is not clear whether Kordahi’s resignation Friday would placate Saudi Arabia enough to reverse its decisions and prevent further escalation, or whether it would open the door for Cabinet meetings to resume.
Lebanon’s government headed by Mikati is embroiled in another crisis triggered when Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group protested the course of the state’s investigation into the Beirut port explosion last year.
Hezbollah has criticized Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, saying his probe was politicized, and called on the government to ensure he is removed. Local media reported there were mediations to trade Bitar’s removal from the probe with Kordahi’s resignation.
Kordahi, in the televised interview, had said the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen’s war began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthi rebels, who control much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war the following year, determined to restore the internationally recognized government and oust the rebels.
At the root of the crisis is a years-old regional rivalry with Iran, and Saudi unease about the increasing clout of Hezbollah. Lebanon has been caught in the middle. Its relations with Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of the small Mediterranean country, have been steadily worsening over the past years.
Kordahi’s resignation comes ahead of a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Saudi Arabia Saturday. Macron backs Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government and had taken the lead among the international community in helping the small Mideast country, a former French protectorate.
A senior official from the French presidency, speaking to reporters earlier this week ahead of Macron’s trip to the Gulf, said the president will discuss strengthening cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries “to prevent Lebanon from sinking even further.” The official spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
On Friday, Kordahi said he was resigning even though he was unconvinced, adding that “Lebanon does not deserve this treatment” from Saudi Arabia. But he said he had decided to step down “based on new developments” and because he refused to be “the reason for harming Lebanon and Lebanese in the Gulf and other places.”
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Nice, Paris, contributed reporting.
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