The Saudi playbook on Lebanon needs to be revised

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TEHRAN – The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon is due to return to Beirut at the start of Ramadan, according to Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria, after Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati last reiterated the country’s commitment to restoring ties with Arab governments in the Persian Gulf region Tuesday.

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

“I renew the Lebanese Government’s commitment to take the necessary and necessary measures to improve cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Lebanon’s commitment to all Arab League decisions and international legitimacy.” and his commitment to serious and actual work to pursue and complete the implementation of its provisions in a manner that guarantees civil peace and national stability for Lebanon and strengthens its unity,” the Lebanese Prime Minister wrote in the statement.

He stressed the importance of ending all political, military, security and media activities emanating from Lebanon that threaten the “sovereignty, security and stability” of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf region.

Mikati also reiterated his commitment to fighting the smuggling of contraband, especially drugs, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and other countries on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. He also reaffirmed Beirut’s compliance with the Riyadh accords on judicial cooperation and extradition of wanted persons to Saudi Arabia.

According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida, the return of diplomats to Beirut paved the way for the return of Saudi ambassador Walid Bukhari to Lebanon, and that the ambassador’s homecoming could have a positive impact on bilateral relations, especially given that they were held at the same time . It marks the beginning of the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Relations between numerous Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, were torn after criticism by former Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi of the Yemen conflict last year.

For the first time in months since the diplomatic row between Lebanon and those countries in October 2021, Riyadh is trying to adopt a friendlier stance towards Beirut.

“Saudi Arabia wishes Lebanon prosperity and the Lebanese people safety and stability,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said on March 22.

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

Riyadh’s cautious approach to Beirut can be explained by a mid-March meeting in Paris between Patrick Durel, the French President’s adviser on Middle East affairs; Walid Bukhari, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon; and Nizar Alawla, representing the Saudi royal court; and Khaled Saadoun, a senior official in Saudi intelligence.

According to Rabih, Durel, who has always been interested in the Lebanese dossier, is said to have urged Bukhari to return to Beirut during the discussion.

A joint Franco-Saudi committee was also set up to improve coordination between the two countries on the issue.

A few days later, the committee reportedly held a virtual meeting where Durel renewed his request to Bukhari to return to Beirut as a goodwill gesture.

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

According to information confirmed by L’Orient-Jour, there was gossip in local media about the start of a political return of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, as well as meetings between Saudi and Lebanese officials in Paris.

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

Several Lebanese politicians are also 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 with ties to the Lebanese armed forces, were in Riyadh on Monday, in addition to their previous visit in December 2021.

“As part of our campaign 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.

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

“The Lebanese government is extremely committed to maintaining the best of relations with the Saudi-led Gulf monarchies to address the deficiencies that have plagued them,” he said.

A few hours later, Mikati released a statement reaffirming his government’s determination to resume diplomatic relations with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s stance on Lebanon was not the wisest. If de-escalation is your top foreign policy priority, as the MBS has repeatedly emphasized, the course you have taken is wrong.

The timing for the Saudi diplomats’ return could not have been more perfect.

Saadeh Al-Shami, Lebanon’s Deputy Prime Minister, on Monday declared the bankruptcy of the “Lebanon State and Central Bank”.

Riyadh Salameh, who has headed the central bank for 30 years, has dismissed the government’s bankruptcy claims and claimed the bank is still operating.

According to Al-Shami, “Losses are allocated to the state, the Banque du Liban, the banks and the depositors without a percentage.”

“Unfortunately the state is bankrupt as is the Bank of Lebanon and we want to come out with a result and the loss is due to decades of politics and if we do nothing the loss will be much better.”

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

Furthermore, the upcoming general elections in Lebanon represent a plot twist in the Saudi script. Hezbollah has promised to win the election, while Saudi Arabia is calling for Hezbollah to be disbanded. The return of the diplomats comes as the Saudis continue to make their unreasonable demands. It seems the Saudis need to update their playbook on Lebanon.

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