Lebanon minister resigns to ease crisis with Gulf

Beirut (AFP) – The Lebanese minister whose comments on the Yemen war sparked a row with Gulf countries that exacerbated Lebanon's multiple crises resigned Friday in hopes it would help end the standoff.

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Speaking during a press conference, Georges Kordahi said he hoped this decision "could open a window... towards improved bilateral ties" with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

"The timing is right because I am offering something that could provide Lebanon with an exit" from the crisis, the former information minister said.

Kordahi's resignation has been on the table for weeks and is expected to help end a political and diplomatic quandary that has crippled Lebanon's fledgling cabinet since October.

His announcement coincided with a visit to the Gulf by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has spearheaded international efforts to help Lebanon out of its worst ever economic downturn.

Kordahi said the resignation, which he had initially ruled out, became inevitable earlier this week when he met Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

"I understood from prime minister Najib Mikati... that the French want my resignation before Macron's visit to Riyadh because it could maybe help them start a dialogue with Saudi officials over Lebanon and the future of bilateral ties," Kordahi told reporters.

"Because I am keen to take advantage of this promising opportunity that Macron has... I have decided to step down from my ministerial post."

Lebanon's "prime minister has guarantees that Macron will start a dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the resumption of bilateral ties," now that the resignation is final, Kordahi said.

'A chance'

Kordahi criticised the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen during an interview which was recorded before he became minister but was aired on Lebanese TV after he joined the cabinet.

His remarks angered Saudi Arabia as well as Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which responded by recalling their ambassadors from Beirut.

Saudi Arabia also blocked imports and Kuwait said it would limit visas issued to Lebanese, prompting fears that a Gulf backlash could endanger the interests of millions of Lebanese living in Gulf Arab states.

The move was a blow to Lebanon, whose government was only formed in September after a 13-month deadlock and was expected to undertake major reforms to rescue the country from its devastating economic crisis.

In comments made to AFP before his resignation, the ex-minister said he wanted to step down for the sake of the national interest.

"I do not want to cling to this position. If it can be useful, I want to give Lebanon a chance," Kordahi said.

Lebanon is in urgent need of international aid, particularly from its wealthy Arab neighbours, to lift it out of the financial and political quagmire.

Macron on Friday started his two-day tour in Abu Dhabi but was also due to visit Qatar, which Michel Aoun also visited recently, and Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah

Saudi Arabia is Lebanon's third largest export market, accounting for six percent of the country's exports in 2020, worth around $217 million, according to the chamber of commerce.

Following Kordahi's announcement on Friday, the plummeting Lebanese pound regained some of its value against the dollar after dropping to a record low last week.

It was trading at about 22,000 to the greenback, money changers told AFP, up from more than 25,000 just days earlier.

But there was no immediate guarantee that Kordahi's resignation would improve Lebanon's ties with Gulf Arab states which have grown increasingly strained in recent years due to the growing influence of Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which has seats in Lebanon's cabinet and parliament, is branded as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia and much of the West. Riyadh and its allies also accuse Hezbollah of supporting Iran-backed Huthi rebels that seized the Yemeni capital in 2014.

Last month, Saudi's foreign minister said that Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon, and not just Kordahi's comments, had prompted the kingdom to cut ties.

Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan said "the dominance of Iranian proxies... makes dealing with Lebanon pointless for the kingdom and for, I think, Gulf countries".