Saudi playbook on Lebanon needs revamp

April 5, 2022 - 18:57

TEHRAN— The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon is set to return to Beirut by the start of Ramadan, according to the Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria, after Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati reaffirmed the country's commitment to restoring relations with Arab governments in the Persian Gulf region last Tuesday.

Mikati said in a statement on March 29 that he had spoken with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah on normalizing relations between Lebanon and the (Persia) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

"I renew the commitment of the Lebanese government to take the necessary and required measures to enhance cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Lebanon’s commitment to all the decisions of the Arab League and international legitimacy, and its commitment to serious and actual work to follow up and complete the implementation of its provisions in a manner that guarantees civil peace and national stability for Lebanon and fortifies its unity," the Lebanese prime minister wrote in the statement.

He emphasized the importance of ending any political, military, security, and media activities emanating from Lebanon that threaten Saudi Arabia's and other countries' "sovereignty, security, and stability" in the Persian Gulf region.

Mikati also reaffirmed his commitment to combating the smuggling of contraband, particularly drugs, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and other countries on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf. He also reaffirmed Beirut's adherence to the Riyadh Agreement on judicial cooperation and extradition of sought individuals to Saudi Arabia.

According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida, the return of the diplomats to Beirut prepared the way for the return of Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari to Lebanon, and that the ambassador's homecoming might have a beneficial influence on bilateral relations, especially as it happened at the same time. It marks the start of the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Following former Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi's criticism of the Yemeni conflict last year, relations between numerous Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait, were frayed.

For the first time in months, since the diplomatic spat between Lebanon and these countries in October 2021, Riyadh is looking to take a more friendly stance toward Beirut.

"Saudi Arabia wishes Lebanon prosperity and the Lebanese people security and stability," the Saudi Foreign Ministry stated on March 22.

For the time being, the Lebanese dossier is back on the table behind the scenes of Arab diplomacy, and a Saudi political return to Lebanon appears to be on the cards.

Riyadh's cautious approach to Beirut can be explained by a meeting in mid-March in Paris between Patrick Durel, a French president's adviser for Middle East affairs; Walid Bukhari, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Lebanon; and Nizar Alawla, representing the Saudi royal court; as well as Khaled Saadoun, a senior official in the Saudi intelligence service.

According to Rabih, at the discussion, Durel, who has always been interested in the Lebanese dossier, reportedly urged Bukhari to return to Beirut.

A joint French-Saudi committee was also established to improve coordination between the two countries on the issue.

A few days later, the committee reportedly conducted a virtual meeting at which Durel renewed his plea to Bukhari to return to Beirut as a gesture of goodwill.

According to the Lebanese website, L'Orient-Le Jour, the Saudi diplomat will return to Lebanon during Ramadan in April to closely monitor the distribution of humanitarian aid from the fund established on Dec. 4, 2021, by French President Emanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to support the Lebanese people.

According to information confirmed by L'Orient-Jour, there has been chatter in the local media regarding the beginning of a Saudi political return to Lebanon, as well as meetings made in Paris between Saudi and Lebanese officials.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora met with Saadoun in Paris in early March as part of his preparations to run in the election, despite Sunni leader Saad Hariri's decision to boycott the May 15 polls.

Several Lebanese political figures also are scheduled to visit Riyadh in the near future. Wael Abu Faour, Rashaya MP for Walid Joumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, and Melhem Riachi, a former information minister connected to the Lebanese Forces, were in Riyadh on Monday, on top of their previous visit in December 2021.

"As part of our electoral trip, Ziad Hawat (LF MP for Jbeil) and I will travel to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Paris," Riachi told L'Orient-Le Jour.

Mikati appeared to wink at Arab countries, particularly Riyadh, in an interview with the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat published on March 21.

“The Lebanese government is extremely committed to maintaining the best of relations with the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, in order to remedy the shortcomings that have marred them," he said. 

Mikati released a statement a few hours later in which he reiterated his government's resolve to reestablish diplomatic relations with the Persian Gulf Arab countries.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's attitude to Lebanon has not been the most astute. If de-escalation is their top foreign policy priority, as MBS has frequently stated, the course they have chosen is incorrect.

The timing of the return of the Saudi diplomats couldn’t have been more perfect. 

Saadeh Al-Shami, the deputy prime minister of Lebanon, declared the bankruptcy of the “state and the Central Bank of Lebanon” on Monday. 

Responding to the deputy prime minister, Riad Salameh, who has been in charge of the central bank for 30 years, refuted the government's claims of insolvency, claiming that the bank is still working.

According to Al-Shami, "losses will be allocated to the state, the Banque du Liban, banks, and depositors, with no specified percentage."

“Unfortunately, the state is bankrupt, as is the Bank of Lebanon, and we want to come out with a result, and the loss occurred due to policies that have been in place for decades, and if we did nothing, the loss will be much greater.”

“There is a fact that cannot be ignored, we cannot live in a state of denial, and we cannot open (banking) withdrawals to all people,” he said.

In addition, the approaching parliamentary elections in Lebanon constitute a plot twist in the Saudi playbook. Hezbollah has pledged to win the election, while Saudi Arabia has demanded that Hezbollah disband. The return of the diplomats occurs while the Saudis continue to press their unreasonable demands. It seems that the Saudis need to update their playbook on Lebanon.

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