BEIRUT — Pressure is mounting on Lebanese leaders to remove a Cabinet minister whose comments on the war in Yemen sparked a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia. The head of the country’s Maronite Catholic Church called for “decisive action” in his Sunday sermon, suggesting he wanted the minister to resign.
Cardinal Bechara Rai said the crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations threatens to undermine the interests of thousands of Lebanese living there, as well as businesses in Lebanon that depend on the region.
“We look forward to the President and the Prime Minister and all those concerned to take a decisive action to remove the explosive fuse threatening the Lebanese-Gulf relations,” Rai said. “We call for this decisive position in defense of Lebanon and the Lebanese living in the country and abroad.”
His call echoed comments by the Lebanese-Saudi Business Council, an association that represents businessmen from both countries. On Sunday it warned of the crisis’ impact on trade and the economic interests of thousands of Lebanese living in the Gulf.
The council called on the government to remove Information Minister George Kordahi over his comments about the war in Yemen that stoked Riyadh’s ire. Politicians from leading Lebanese parties echoed the call.
Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed Saudi Arabia in taking punitive measures against Lebanon following the discovery of Kordahi’s comments, recalling their ambassadors and asking Lebanon’s to leave their countries. Saudi Arabia, one of Lebanon’s biggest export markets, banned all Lebanese imports — a major blow for a country struggling with a crippling economic crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese live and work in the Gulf, and send millions of dollars of remittances back home, where the financial crisis has driven over 50 percent of the population into poverty.
“We call on all officials to take the necessary measures to dismiss the information minister who caused an unprecedented crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations,” the council said in a statement.
In a statement likely to deepen the crisis, Kordahi told Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed that his resignation is currently not on the table.
Lebanese officials have sought mediation from Washington with Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis. The head of Lebanon’s government, Najib Mikati, flew to London, then Glasgow, where he is expected to meet with foreign dignitaries and search for a resolution to the row, which has become Lebanon’s worst rift with Gulf countries in years.
Relations have been strained over growing Iranian influence in the small nation, where Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a powerful ally. Kordahi is considered one of the allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah faction in the Cabinet.
Kordahi described — on a TV program filmed in August and aired this week — the war in Yemen as an aggression by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He called the war “absurd,” saying that Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have the right to defend themselves.
Kordahi, who hosted a game show for years on a Saudi-owned TV station, has refused to apologize, saying his comments meant no offense to the kingdom.
Yemen has been convulsed by civil war since 2014, when the Houthis captured the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country. That forced the internationally recognized government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015, backed by the United States, to try to restore the government to power. Despite a relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has deteriorated largely into a stalemate and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.