BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s information minister resigned Friday, a move many hope could open the way for easing an unprecedented diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations that has compounded the small country’s multiple crises.
George Kordahi, the minister and a prominent former game show host, said he took the decision to step down ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The resignation, Kordahi said at a press conference in the Lebanese capital, may help Macron start a dialogue to help restore Beirut-Riyadh relations.
But the crisis goes deeper than Kordahi’s comments aired in late October, in which he was critical of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. His resignation is unlikely going to be a game changer in the dynamics of the crisis. It is rooted in Saudi Arabia’s uneasiness over the rising influence of Iran in the region, including in Lebanon, once a traditional Saudi ally and recipient of financial assistance from the oil-rich kingdom.
It is also unlikely to diffuse internal divisions in Lebanon and a government paralysis made worse during the diplomatic crisis.
Saudi Arabia, which has been joined by other Gulf Arab states in a boycott of Lebanon, is unhappy with the dominance of the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and its allies on the levers of power in Lebanon.
“The Saudi view is that any initiative that does not address that core issue will not succeed nor receive its blessing,” said the risk consultancy Eurasia Group in a statement Friday. “As a result, a minister’s resignation will be viewed as somewhat constructive but largely irrelevant to the much larger issue at hand.”
Prospects of significant financial assistance to Lebanon are therefore dim, the group said.
That crisis has added to immense economic troubles facing Lebanon, already mired in a financial meltdown. Following Kordahi’s televised comments, the kingdom recalled its ambassador from Beirut and banned all Lebanese imports, affecting hundreds of businesses and cutting off hundreds of millions in foreign currency to Lebanon.
That aggravated Lebanon’s economic crisis, the worst in its modern history, which has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of 6 million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
The Saudi measures have caused anxiety, particularly among hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who work in the Gulf Arab countries and send home millions of dollars every year.
For weeks, Kordahi, backed by Hezbollah and its allies, refused to resign, saying the comments were made before he was named minister and that he meant no offense.
On Friday, he said he was resigning even though he was unconvinced that this was needed, adding that “Lebanon does not deserve this treatment” from Saudi Arabia.
“Lebanon is more important than George Kordahi,” he said. “I hope that this resignation opens the window” for better relations with Gulf Arab countries.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati welcomed Kordahi’s resignation, saying it was “necessary” and “could open the door for tackling the problem with the brothers in the kingdom and the Gulf nations.”
On Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, Kordahi was hailed as a “national hero” who stepped down for the national good, without changing his views.
In his remarks that triggered the spat, Kordahi said in a televised interview that the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition. The conflict began with the 2014 takeover of Yemen’s capital, 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.
The standoff with Saudi Arabia has further paralyzed Lebanon’s government, which has been unable to convene since Oct. 12 amid reports that ministers allied with Hezbollah would resign if Kordahi goes.
Mikati’s government is embroiled in another crisis, triggered when Hezbollah protested the course of the state’s investigation into the massive Beirut port explosion last year. It criticized Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, saying his probe was politicized, and called on the government to ensure his removal. Local media reported there were mediations to trade Bitar’s removal from the probe with Kordahi’s resignation.
Macron, who is due in Riyadh on Saturday, backs Mikati’s government and has taken the lead among the international community in helping the small Mideast country, a former French protectorate.
“I understood that the French want my resignation before Macron visits Riyadh, which would help, maybe in opening the way for dialogue,” Kordahi said. He did not elaborate, though he had earlier said he was seeking guarantees that his stepping down would ease tensions with the kingdom.
A senior official from the French presidency, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said Macron will discuss strengthening cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries “to prevent Lebanon from sinking even further.” The official spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
After accepting Kordahi’s resignation, Mikati called on his Cabinet to convene and end the deadlock that has paralyzed the government for weeks.
Salem Zahran, a Lebanese analyst, said Kordahi’s resignation may be a “ticket” to jump-start French mediation with Saudi Arabia on Lebanon's behalf but is unlikely to change much domestically. A parliament session is expected Tuesday, with a discussion about the government paralysis because of the port investigation on the agenda.
By ZEINA KARAM and SARAH EL DEEB Associated Press
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Nice, France, contributed to this report.