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Kuwait joins action against Beirut; Lebanon crisis deepens

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BEIRUT, Oct 31, (Agencies): Lebanese politicians scrambled to resolve a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations on Saturday, after comments by a Cabinet minister about the war in Yemen stoked their ire. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates followed the Saudis with measures against Lebanon, increasing pressure on a crisis-hit country badly in need of foreign assistance amid a crippling economic and financial crisis. The row is one of the worst rifts between the Gulf nations and Lebanon in years. Relations have been strained over growing Iranian influence in the small nation, where Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a powerful ally.

Lebanese hold Saudi Arabia flags during a protest in support of the kingdom against comments made by a Lebanese minister over the war in Yemen, in front of the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 30. (AP)

On Saturday afternoon, Saudi ambassador to Beirut Waleed Bukhari flew home after he was recalled by his government, according to airport officials in Beirut. Bukhari’s departure came a day after Saudi Arabia ordered Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh to leave within 48 hours and banned all imports from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has for decades been a huge market for Lebanese products. The moves came as the Arab League chief expressed concerns about the deterioration of ties between Lebanon and wealthy Gulf countries over statements made by Information Minister George Kordahi. The U.S. State Department said in a statement: “We urge that all diplomatic channels remain open between the parties to ensure meaningful dialogue on the pressing issues facing Lebanon.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said Prime Minister Najib Mikati is in contact with foreign officials who asked him not to think about resigning. The minister added that he is in contact with the Americans to help solve the crisis.

Lebanon’s Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told the U.S.-based Arabic-language Alhurra TV that Mikati has asked the international community, specifically the U.S., to help solve the crisis, and to open room for dialogue with Saudi Arabia over all pending issues. 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 it must stop because he is opposed to wars between Arabs. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Lebanese leaders to remove the minister from office.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. 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% of the population into poverty. In a statement likely to deepen the crisis, Kordahi told Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed that his resignation is currently not on the table.

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