BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s information minister is expected to announce his resignation Friday, in a bid to ease an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Local media reported that Minister George Kordahi intends to step down, weeks after televised comments he made that were critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen sparked the crisis.
In response, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and banned all Lebanese imports, affecting hundreds of businesses and cutting off hundreds of millions in foreign currency to Lebanon, which is already facing a major economic meltdown. Kordahi had refused to resign over the comments made before he assumed his Cabinet post, prolonging the crisis.
Kordahi had said the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen’s war began with the 2014 takeover of 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.
Lebanon is sinking deeper into an economic crisis, the worst in its modern history. The country’s financial meltdown, coupled with multiple other crises, has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of 6 million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
The standoff has paralyzed the government, which has been unable to convene since Oct. 12 amid reports that ministers allied with Hezbollah would resign if Kordahi goes.
The government is also embroiled in another crisis triggered when Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group protested the course of the state’s investigation into the Beirut port explosion last year.
Hezbollah has criticized Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, saying his probe was politicized, and called on the government to ensure he is removed. Local media reported there were mediations to trade Bitar’s removal from the probe with Kordahi’s resignation.
The Saudi measures have caused anxiety particularly among the many Lebanese who work in Gulf countries, and added to the country’s economic woes. It is not clear whether Kordahi’s resignation Friday would placate Saudi Arabia enough to reverse its decisions and prevent further escalation, or whether it would open the door for Cabinet meetings to resume.
On Friday, Kordahi told the MTV local TV station his resignation was to “open the door” for easing the crisis. “I said from day one if my resignation helps I am ready for it,” he said.
At the root of the crisis is a years-old regional rivalry with Iran, and Saudi unease about the increasing clout of Hezbollah. Lebanon has been caught in the middle. Its relations with Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of the small Mediterranean country, have been steadily worsening over the past years.
Kordahi’s expected resignation later Friday comes ahead of a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Saudi Arabia Saturday. Macron backs Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government and had taken the lead among the international community in helping the small Mideast country, a former French protectorate.
A senior official from the French presidency, speaking to reporters earlier this week ahead of Macron’s trip to the Gulf, said the president will discuss strengthening cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries “to prevent Lebanon from sinking even further.” The official spoke Friday on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Nice, France contributed reporting.