BEIRUT (Reuters) -Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates summoned Lebanese ambassadors on Wednesday to protest over comments made by the information minister before he took office that were critical of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
The comments by George Kordahi in an interview he said was recorded on Aug. 5 have, since it began circulating on social media on Tuesday, further strained Lebanon’s already difficult ties with Gulf Arab states.
Speaking to an online show affiliated with Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, Kordahi – named minister in the government that took office in September – called the war futile and said Yemen was subjected to an aggression and that its Iran-aligned Houthis were defending themselves.
Seeking to avert diplomatic fallout, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the interview was recorded more than a month before his cabinet was formed and reflected a personal opinion that had nothing to do with the government.
Mikati has been hoping to improve ties with Gulf Arab states which have been strained for years because of the influence wielded in Beirut by the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
Lebanon, he added, was eager for the best relations with Arab states.
The UAE foreign ministry said it informed the ambassador of its protest, and that Kordahi’s statements “reflect Lebanon’s growing distance from its Arab brotherly countries.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s secretary general earlier said Kordahi’s comments reflected little understanding and a superficial reading of events.
GCC member Kuwait also summoned Lebanon’s charge d’affaires in protest.
Beirut has adopted a policy of staying out of regional conflicts even as Hezbollah has deployed fighters to Syria. The Saudi-led coalition says Hezbollah has also sent fighters to Yemen.
Kordahi said on Wednesday his remarks were personal views made before he was a minister, and that he was committed to government policy. “I am against Arab-Arab wars … accusing me of hostility to Saudi Arabia is rejected.”
He said he would not resign.
When asked during the show about drone attacks, which the Houthis have launched repeatedly into Saudi Arabia along with missiles, he answered: “Yes, but see also the damage that is being done to them as a nation … they are being bombed by planes”.
The Saudi-led coalition says it does not intentionally target civilians in Yemen, where air strikes have killed civilians at hospitals, schools and markets during the nearly seven-year war.
(Reporting by Maha El Dahan in Beirut, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Nayera Abdallah in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Perry, Christina Fincher and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)