|11 June, 2019

Lebanon's minister on defensive after fierce backlash over labor remarks

Bassil’s comments, which were tweeted from his official account, were not well-received, particularly by Saudi nationals

Lebanese foreign Minister Gebran Bassil arrives for meetings in Geneva, Switzerland June 14, 2018.

Lebanese foreign Minister Gebran Bassil arrives for meetings in Geneva, Switzerland June 14, 2018.

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil Monday defended comments he made about foreign labor in Lebanon, including Saudi labor, after he received heated backlash at home and abroad.

Speaking over the weekend at the closing of the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference in Beirut, Bassil said: “It is natural to defend the Lebanese labor in the face of any other [foreign] labor, be it Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian or American.” He added: “The Lebanese are above all.”

Bassil’s comments, which were tweeted from his official account, were not well-received, particularly by Saudi nationals, who called for their country to adopt a similar stance against Lebanese nationals working in Saudi Arabia.

“There are no Saudi employees in Lebanon. They won’t leave the advanced world to be employed [in Lebanon],” a Twitter user with the name Fahad wrote. “The number of Lebanese residing in Saudi [Arabia] exceeds 200,000 ... and so we should get rid of them and employ Saudis,” he added.

Another user, Khalid al-Saud, wrote on the platform: “The Saudis come to your country [Lebanon] as tourists at their own expense and not to look for jobs. Make sure of your information and the tweet.”

Another user, Fayez Alshiban, wrote: “Well done. It is the Lebanese’s right to get the jobs that are filled by Saudi labor, and it is the right of the Saudi to get the jobs that the Lebanese work in.”

The criticism wasn’t limited to social media.

Saudi journalist Sultan Bin Bandar wrote on Saudi website Okaz that Bassil “forgot that Saudi Arabia welcomed the Lebanese labor and provided a fertile ground for them to work,” accusing Bassil of ruining Lebanese-Saudi relations.

Bassil’s comments also caused backlash at home, as Lebanese citizens, journalists and officials said he had endangered the stability of Lebanese - many of whom send remittances that contribute significantly to Lebanon’s gross domestic product - working in Saudi Arabia.

MP Paula Yacoubian called on Bassil to apologize or resign.

“Lebanese migrated to flee from people like you, [but] here you are following up to their countries of residence in order to destroy their lives,” she tweeted.

In response to the controversy, Bassil tweeted Monday, “Countries, including Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, distinguish between their citizens and [others in their territories]. This is not racism. When you defend your people’s rights, you are a patriot and not a racist.”

“This is what I said, and this is what I meant,” he said, adding that his comments had been twisted.

He called on Lebanese working and living abroad to respect the laws of the countries they were in, adding that “we have a Lebanese diaspora in Saudi Arabia that should be protected.”

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