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A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe (right) presenting his resignation to President Michel Aoun at the Baabda presidential palace, east of Beirut on May 19, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe asked Wednesday to be relieved of his duties, less than 48-hours after stirring up a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Appearing on Al Hurra TV on Monday, Wehbe accused Gulf countries, without naming them, of being behind the rise of Daesh. During the heated debate, his Saudi interlocutor Salman Al Ansari said that Michel Aoun was responsible for handing Lebanon to Hezbollah, which prompted Wehbe to snap: “His name is His Excellency President Michel Aoun.” He then abruptly snatched the microphone off his jacket and left the studio, accusing Al Ansar of being a “Bedouin”.

The remarks caused uproar both within Lebanon and beyond. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain all summoned Lebanese ambassadors in their countries, objecting to the minister’s remarks. The Kingdom described them as “offences” while the UAE said they were “derogatory and racist”.

President Aoun intimately tried to downplay the crisis, saying that the minister’s remarks were his “personal opinion,” praising what he called “brotherly ties” with the Gulf. He then asked Wehbe to make an official apology, which he finally did on Tuesday — but it was seemingly not enough to end the crisis. Prime Minister Saad Hariri also slammed Wehbe, coming in defence of Saudi Arabia, a country that has supported him for years, and without whom neither he nor his father would have made a fortune.

The popular Lebanese daily Annahar replied by running a positive feature on the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE.

Caretaker capacity

Wehbe, 67, has been minister of foreign affairs since August 3, 2020. One day after his appointment, the infamous Beirut port explosion happened, killing nearly 200 people and destroying half the city. The cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab has since resigned and is in caretaker capacity. So is the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

After studying mathematics at the Lebanese University, he began a career in the foreign service, serving as the Lebanese consul in Montreal (1995-2000), Los Angeles (2002-2007), and then as Ambassador to Venezuela (2007-2012). He is a Maronite Christian like President Aoun, allied to Hezbollah.

Comparison to Charles Malik

On social media networks, many are comparing him with Charles Malik, an AUB-educated statesman who served at the helm of Lebanon’s foreign ministry during the 1950s, managing to walk a fine line between rival camps during the Cold War.

“Charbel Wehbe’s unfortunate statement exemplifies the deterioration of the Lebanese political system,” said AUB professor Hilal Khashan. Speaking to Gulf News, he said that Malik had “drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” whereas Wehbe was nothing but a “well-dressed gangster”.

Allegiance to Hezbollah

“Wehbe’s allegiance is to Hezbollah first and to Lebanon second,” said Joseph Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

Along with its allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) that is run by Aoun’s son-in-law Gibran Basil, Hezbollah handpicked all ministers in the Hassan Diab cabinet. Despite ideological differences, Hezbollah and the FPM have been working together since 2006. The crux of their understanding ran along the following lines: Hezbollah would support Aoun’s bid for the presidency in exchange for Aoun supporting Hezbollah’s right to bear arms.

He fulfilled his part of the deal by supporting Hezbollah during the war of 2006 with Israel, and Hezbollah upheld theirs by making him president in 2016. Charbel Wehbe is only a footnote in this agreement, parachuted into the job after the sudden resignation of Nassif Hitti last August. He was nominated as minister by Aoun’s son-in-law, Gibran Basil.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Diab has been trying to reach out to Arab states, to obtain much needed financial assistance for Lebanon’s collapsing economy. In April, he visited Qatar and was scheduled to be in Iraq before end of this month.

Catchy slogan

But in as much as Lebanese statesmen are badly in need of cash, most are unwilling to steer away from the corrupted system that brought them to power — and kept them in their seats — despite public protest against their performance.

A catchy slogan devised during the October 2017 Revolution was “All of them means all of them.” That prompted none to leave the scene, and nor did the criminal negligence that led to the Beirut port explosion.

Kéchichian added: “This is a very sad episode but entirely within the preview of the level to which the Lebanese ruling establishment has stooped. Nothing will change in their obnoxious behaviour, which damages Lebanese interests even more than many have assumed to date, until the entire group is replaced by genuine patriots. Will that day come?”

Hezbollah has often taken jabs at Gulf states, often via its leader Hassan Nasrallah. But they have been silent in recent weeks, as talks unfold between Iran and the US on one front, and between Iran and Saudi Arabia on another. That explains why contrary to what many expected, Hezbollah did not come out with a statement defending Charbel Wehbe.