Three former Lebanese prime ministers met with Saudi King Salman in Jeddah on Monday in a bid to increase the kingdom’s backing of the current prime minister and counter Hezbollah and its allies that dominate Lebanese politics.
While nothing concrete was announced, the Saudi Press Agency reported that during the meeting, they “reiterated the firm stance of the Kingdom towards Lebanon’s security and stability” and “the importance of maintaining Lebanon within its Arab context”, implicitly targeting Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Shia group, Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia is traditionally the main patron of the Lebanese Sunni community and has a close relationship with its prime minister, Saad Hariri. To represent the country’s delicate sectarian balance, the prime minister is always Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament Shia Muslim and the president a Maronite Christian.
However, Saudi Arabia has reduced its involvement in Lebanese politics in recent years, upset with Hezbollah’s increasing influence in the country and the region. When the latest government was formed late January, the Shia party, which wields one of the most effective paramilitary forces in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, took three ministers instead of the usual two. Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.
Saudi’s distancing from Lebanon has correlated with a weakening of the position of Mr Hariri, much to the dismay of his predecessors who decided to take the matter in their own hands and travel to Jeddah. “We feel that the Prime Minister is being targeted and weakened,” said Tammam Salam, one of the three former prime ministers who met King Salman, along with Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati.
Mr Salam told The National that he felt that the timing of the visit was right, after recent Saudi overtures to Lebanon that included the February move by the kingdom to lift a 15-month travel warning urging its citizens against travelling to Lebanon.
Mr Salam and Mr Siniora both said that they believe that the 1989 Taef agreement that ended the 15-year civil war is under threat. Named after the Saudi city where it was signed, the Taef agreement provided a framework for post-civil war Lebanon. Amongst others, the agreement modified the power-sharing structure by giving more power to the Sunni prime minister. At the time, Mr Hariri's late father Rafic, who was close to Saudi Arabia, played an important role in enforcing the prime minister's newly acquired prerogatives.
But today, his son struggles to contain his opponents, such as Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who heads the Christian Free Patriotic Movement founded by his father-in-law and current president Michel Aoun. Mr Hariri’s waning power became evident after the last parliamentary elections in May 2018, when his Future Movement party lost more than one third of its seats.
In his speeches, Mr Bassil has repeatedly stoked sectarian sentiment between the Christians and other religious communities. His critics say this is what caused an explosion of violence in the Druze mountain that left two dead late June. To not destabilise the situation further, Mr Hariri has avoided clashing with Mr Bassil directly.
Though politics have always followed sectarian lines in Lebanon, Mr Siniora warned that the situation is worsening today. He pointed at President Aoun's recent visit to Moscow during which he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for protecting Christians in the region. "His responsibility is to protect all the Lebanese," Mr Siniora told The National, not just his religious community.
One of the core elements of Mr Aoun’s policies in the build up to taking office in 2016, and echoed by his son-in-law Mr Bassil, is restoring the rights of Christians in Lebanon.
Another factor that has contributed to the weakening of the Prime Minister is the 2009 Doha agreement that put an end to an 8-month long political crisis that saw Hezbollah fighters invading west Beirut. In what Mr Salam described as a “major intrusion,” it allowed the party that controls one third of cabinet to boycott meetings, which is what President Aoun is able to do.
The prime minister’s situation may represent “a drift” from what was agreed in Taef, but the fact that Mr Hariri remains in power means that he is endorsing it, said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “Whether he likes it or not, Mr Hariri is part of the game.”
As to what exactly Lebanon can expect in the form of a renewed Saudi Arabian support, both Mr Salam and Mr Siniora remained vague.
“During the meeting [with King Salman], we did not discuss financial support and the like,” said Mr Siniora. “How and what and in what manner,” this support will be concretely implemented and “must be dealt with the prime minister,” he added.
“I would expect more moves towards Lebanon in different shapes maybe. There are many bilateral agreements in preparation. I hope they are signed soon,” said Mr Salam.
However, Mr Nader argues that Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of Lebanon will remain symbolic as long as Hezbollah has the upper hand militarily on the ground. “It’s not easy to change the balance of power in favour of Mr Hariri, unless power shifts regionally and Iran – and through it Hezbollah – is weakened.”