A change of tack. Saudis prepare for a come back in Lebanon

Nearly 100 days after his mysterious “captivity” in the Saudi capital, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri visited Riyadh again on February 28. The timing could not have been more critical as Lebanon is currently gearing up for a legislative election in May and Hariri is shaping his electoral alliances across the country’s 15 electoral districts. However, the lack of clarity about what was agreed on during this visit left the door wide open for speculation about its potential impact on Hariri’s relations with Riyadh and on Saudi influence in Lebanon.

Optics, Content, and Potential Impact

On February 26, the Saudi government sent two officials to Beirut—the advisor to the Royal Court, Ambassador Nizar al-Aloula, and Minister Plenipotentiary Walid al-Bukhari, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—to formally extend an invitation to Saad Hariri to visit Riyadh. This was a contrast to the way the Lebanese premier had been abruptly summoned by phone on the eve of his forced resignation last year. Al-Aloula is the new public face of Saudi politics in Lebanon, currently handling this portfolio instead of the controversial Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, who has been silent on Lebanon since his visit to Washington in November 2017. (While in Washington, Sabhan met with Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Satterfield, who reportedly “demanded that Sabhan explain why Riyadh was destabilizing Lebanon.”) Consequently, on February 28 Hariri traveled to Riyadh for four days, where he met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Hariri attended the meetings alone—in Beirut and in Riyadh—and this added a layer of secrecy to these interactions.

However, some clues and observations might explain the underlying messages behind these meetings. First, because every detail of the interactions matters in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, al-Aloula first visited the presidential palace in Baabda presumably to ask, courteously, for President Michel Aoun’s permission to invite the Lebanese prime minister to Riyadh. Hariri waited for al-Aloula in his office in the Grand Serail (the prime minister’s office) in downtown Beirut, although he typically receives Saudi envoys at the door of his own home. In Riyadh, Hariri was treated as a sitting prime minister and not merely as a Saudi citizen. The proper diplomatic protocols were put in place, and when Hariri departed from Saudi Arabia on March 4, the governor of the Riyadh region, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, and a royal ceremony awaited him1 at the King Khalid International Airport. These measures are significant as his late father, Rafiq Hariri, was never treated as a foreign leader during his visits to Riyadh, as prime minister of Lebanon. While Rafiq Hariri was much closer then to the Saudi leadership and there was no need for protocol to prove his relationship, the official welcome of Saad Hariri might actually indicate a cooler relationship—or perhaps an apology in disguise.

Second, the content and political messages behind these interactions show that little has, in fact, changed about what Saudi Arabia wants in Lebanon. After extending an invitation to the Lebanese premier, al-Aloula lavished compliments on Hariri’s political opponents. In front of cameras, he told former Prime Minister Najib Miqati,2 who is running as a candidate in Tripoli against Hariri’s list, that “you are popular in the kingdom and you have special affection and respect from the Saudi people.” He also met former minister Ashraf Rifi, who has turned against Hariri and was one of the main Lebanese politicians who played a role in the attempt to oust him from power last November. Al-Aloula said he felt “at home” during a dinner with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, in a veiled message to Hariri that he should ally with Geagea in the upcoming election instead of President Aoun. (While Aoun has been Hezbollah’s ally since 2006 and provided the party with Christian political cover, Geagea has long held hawkish views against Hezbollah within the Maronite community.) All these political moves conveyed the Saudis’ message to Hariri that he no longer may be the only and exclusive ally in Lebanon.

It is also not clear to what extent the relationship was repaired and trust was restored between Hariri and Riyadh. Saudi officials had reservations about Hariri’s inner circle and family members who led the campaign to secure his release last November, most notably his chief of staff and cousin Nader Hariri. These members of Hariri’s team kept a low profile during al-Aloula’s visit. Most importantly, in recent weeks Hariri has purged all those who were disloyal to him3 during his forced resignation saga, either by banishing them from his inner circle or excluding them from his electoral list. Hariri also had plans to marginalize Lebanese leaders who turned against him last November, most notably Samir Geagea; however, Saudi pressure prevented such a move. In return, Riyadh also attempted to turn the page with Hariri by appointing al-Bukhari as head of the Saudi mission in Lebanon, replacing Ambassador Walid Yaacoub who was selected by al-Sabhan just last January.

The third dimension is the impact of these interactions on Saudi policy in Lebanon. There is a Saudi attempt to repair the self-inflicted damage of last November. Unlike the confrontational visit of al-Sabhan last August, when he did not meet with President Aoun, al-Aloula met this time with the Lebanese president and prime minister as well as with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. However, the Saudi envoy did not meet Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, who has been outspoken against Riyadh in the past few months. Joumblatt called the war in Yemen “absurd” and stated that he would decline any invitation to Riyadh if its purpose were to return to the old realignment of Lebanese politics—in reference to the legislative elections of 2005 and 2009 between the “March 14” and “March 8” groups.4

Once Hariri came back to Beirut on March 4, he immediately made some minor adjustments. The Lebanese premier urged his Future Movement colleague, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, to run as a candidate in the Sidon district in south Lebanon. The two had a difficult relationship in the past few years as Siniora holds a hawkish view on dealing with Hezbollah and was against the October 2016 deal to elect Aoun as president. However, Siniora insisted on returning to the private sector. After Hariri returned from his February trip to Riyadh, he seemed open once again to forging a limited electoral alliance with Geagea in some districts; but he does not seem willing to give up on his alliance with Aoun. Now that the March 6 deadline for submitting candidacy credentials for parliamentary elections has passed, the next crucial deadline is to form the electoral alliances by March 26.

What to Expect Moving Forward

US and French encouragement of Saudi Arabia and Hariri to move beyond their tense relationship was motivated by numerous factors. First, there are concerns in Washington and Paris that the Iran-backed Hezbollah might score a big victory in the upcoming election, hence there is an attempt to prop up Hariri and facilitate the return of Saudi influence to fill the void in Lebanon. Second, France is planning a series of international conferences in April to help the Lebanese economy and military; the participation and financial pledges from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries might be crucial to secure the success of these conferences. However, there is a recognition in Paris that such interactions between Hariri and Riyadh might not be enough. A French official remarked that “the new Saudi leadership doesn’t have the same relationship with Lebanon as in the past and no longer wants to invest billions in the country.” It is yet to be seen if Riyadh will play an active role in these international conferences and whether it will restore the $4 billion aid package to the Lebanese security forces, which it withheld in 2016.

Hariri did not give up many of his core policies in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia criticized, most notably his partnership with Aoun and his non-confrontational approach in deterring Hezbollah—the two policies that, incidentally, help keep him in power. While Riyadh made cosmetic changes to its approach to Lebanon, its views on Lebanese politics seem to remain largely the same. Hariri’s business empire, “Saudi Oger,” remains in deep trouble and there are no indications that Riyadh will help Hariri fund his election campaign.

The Saudi policy seems to have shifted to a “soft power” approach that strikes a balance between its 2011-2015 withdrawal from Lebanese politics and its 2016-2017 full offensive. In the past few months, Riyadh has recognized there is no support in Lebanon, nor in the international community, for its attempt to coerce a realignment in Lebanese politics. While we might never know what has exactly happened during Hariri’s “captivity” in Riyadh last November, the implications of this event still resonate in Lebanese politics.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC

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