Saudi Arabia and the UAE have summoned Lebanon’s ambassadors to protest against Information Minister George Kordahi’s criticism of the Riyadh-led military coalition fighting rebels in Yemen.
Kordahi said during an interview aired on Monday that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels are “defending themselves … against an external aggression”, adding that “homes, villages, funerals and weddings were being bombed” by the coalition.
He also called the seven-year war in Yemen “futile” and said it was “time for it to end”.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis gained control of the capital Sanaa, prompting Saudi-led forces to intervene to prop up the government the following year.
Tens of thousands of people – most of them civilians – have died and millions have been displaced, in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that it handed the ambassador a memorandum protesting against Kordahi’s “offensive” remarks.
It also expressed its regret about the “insulting” statements, saying they were “clearly biased towards the terrorist Houthi militia that threatens the security and stability of the region”.
Shortly after, the United Arab Emirates – a member of the coalition – condemned Kordahi’s statements and said it had also called in the Lebanese ambassador.
Kordahi’s “disgraceful and biased” comments “offended the member countries of the coalition,” it said in a statement carried by the official WAM news agency.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s secretary general earlier said Kordahi’s comments reflected little understanding and was a superficial reading of events.
GCC member Kuwait also summoned Lebanon’s charge d’affaires in protest.
On Tuesday, the Lebanese government said that Kordahi’s statements were “rejected and did not reflect the position of the government”, adding that the interview in question took place before Kordahi was appointed to the cabinet in September.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib 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 Shia group Hezbollah.
Lebanon, he added, was eager for the best relations with Arab states.
Kordahi, a well-known television presenter, told local reporters on Wednesday that the interview in question took place on August 5, before he became a minister and was his “personal opinion”.
“I did not wrong anyone. I did not attack anyone. Why should I apologise?” he said. “I stated my position with love as a human who feels Arab suffering.”
He said he was committed to government policy and would not resign.
“I am against Arab-Arab wars … accusing me of hostility to Saudi Arabia is rejected.”
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.”
Beirut has adopted a policy of staying out of regional conflicts even as Hezbollah has deployed fighters to Syria. The Saudi-led coalition has said Hezbollah also sent fighters to Yemen.
Rights groups have strongly criticised the coalition for civilian casualties in its aerial bombardment.
The Saudi-led coalition says it does not intentionally target civilians in Yemen, where air raids have killed civilians at hospitals, schools and markets during the war.