By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan
BEIRUT -Lebanon’s president said on Saturday he wants the best relations with Saudi Arabia, looking to heal a rift with the kingdom after it expelled Beirut’s envoy and banned Lebanese imports in a diplomatic spat that risks adding to Lebanon’s economic crisis.
In a tweet Michel Aoun said Lebanon is keen on strengthening links via bilateral deals, after mounting tensions following critical comments by a Lebanese minister about the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
The row has spurred calls by some top politicians for the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi, while others opposed such a move, which could undermine the government as a whole.
Following a near three-hour ministerial crisis meeting on Saturday, Education Minister Abbas Halabi said the government could not afford to resign over the diplomatic dispute.
“The country cannot be left without a government,” due to other pressing matters, and would continue to work to resolve the rift, Halabi said.
Saudi Arabia expelled Lebanon’s envoy and banned all Lebanese imports on Friday, and Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit, giving the top Lebanese diplomats 48 hours to exit. The United Arab Emirates later said it would withdraw all its diplomats and banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon.
Kordahi’s resignation would have knock-on effects that could threaten Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s coalition government, tasked with addressing a financial crisis dubbed by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history.
Kordahi left without making a statement after a visit to the country’s top Christian cleric, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai on Saturday.
Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said Mikati’s contacts with officials from a number of states showed opposition to the resignation of the government, formed only last month after a 13-month stalemate.
“They told Mikati, ‘if you are thinking about resignation, take that out of your head,’” he said.
Richard Michaels, deputy head of the U.S. mission in Lebanon, had joined the crisis meeting in Beirut, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said, declining to comment further.
Kordahi has been publicly backed by the Iran-backed Hezbollah armed group and has declined to apologise or resign over the comments, which have dealt the worst blow to Saudi-Lebanese relations since Saad al-Hariri’s 2017 detention in Riyadh.
The minister’s political patron, Suleiman Frangieh of the Hezbollah-allied Marada Movement, told a news conference he had refused an offer by Kordahi to resign and would not name a successor should he do so.
A group of former Lebanese prime ministers called on Saturday for Kordahi to resign, however, saying his comments had inflicted a strong blow to relations with Gulf Arab nations.
Fouad Seniora, Hariri and Tammam Sallam, some of the country’s top pro-Saudi politicians, said in the statement that Kordahi’s remarks “harmed Lebanon’s supreme national interest”.
If Kordahi resigns, ministers backed by Hezbollah and its Amal ally could follow suit at a time when the government is already paralysed by a dispute over an inquiry into the August 2020 explosion that devastated parts of Beirut.
A senior political source told Reuters that the United States and European nations were in contact with Lebanese officials to prevent the government from falling and there were no immediate indications any ministers would resign.
Mikati has been hoping to improve ties with Gulf Arab states strained for years because of the influence wielded in Beirut by Hezbollah.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst, said the latest row was rooted in Saudi concern over Hezbollah’s growing grip on Lebanon despite huge Saudi financial support and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese working in the Gulf.
“Kordahi’s statement stung particularly hard since his career was made with Saudi-owned media … but this is bigger than just him,” he said.