Saudi Looks to Lebanon for Regional Boost

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While current Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has yet to have a photo-op with King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, his path to the Kingdom is now wide open. (Photo: Haytham Al-Moussawi)

Published Thursday, January 24, 2013

Relations between Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Saudi Arabia have always been estranged, yet the premier’s recent visit with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz in Riyadh hints that the Kingdom might be in need of a new friend in Lebanon.

Saad Hariri no longer holds a monopoly on favors from Saudi Arabia; visits with Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz aren’t the exclusive domain of the former prime minister.

While current Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has yet to have a photo-op with King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, his path to the Kingdom is now wide open. Mikati’s previous meetings with Saudi officials were never made public – though sometimes leaked to the press – but the prime minister’s visit on Monday, 21 January 2013, was publicized.

Sources close to Mikati attributed the public visit to two factors: the approaching Lebanese general election and a need for Saudi to strengthen its influence in Lebanon. In the case of the election, Saudi Arabia will not stand against Mikati in his hometown of Tripoli, even if it has declared its full support for the Future Movement in Beirut and the Bekaa. As for Saudi attempting to regain a foothold in the country, it sees its influence undermined as a result of Saad Hariri’s absence from Beirut.

Meanwhile, another source familiar with the new Saudi stance on Mikati told Al-Akhbar that, in contrast to the previous distance that marked their relationship, the Lebanese prime minister was greeted warmly by the Saudi crown prince. The encounter took place in the presence of Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and his deputy, Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah (son of King Abdullah), after Mikati held lengthy meetings with the latter two.

The source affirmed that the meeting with Mikati was motivated by Lebanese and regional developments linked to Syria. For instance, there is a firm Saudi conviction at present that its allies in Lebanon, specifically the Future Movement, are incapable of restoring a prominent position for the Kingdom in the country’s ruling configuration.

Saudi Arabia is dismayed by “rampant corruption in the Future Movement,” said the source. Given the huge sums of money paid to the bloc by the House of Saud, none of it was “invested in the development of Sunni-majority regions like North Lebanon.”

The source did not conceal that Saudi is disquieted by the Future Movement “for leaving the Sunni arena to the Salafis and other radicals [who are] rejected by a majority of Lebanese.” Indeed, the source went on to say, Riyadh had “asked Hariri to use the Salafis only tactically, but not to hand over the scene to them.”

In the period following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saudi Arabia came to realize that “neutral” Sunni leaders such as Mikati and Minister of Finance Mohammad Safadi, or those who toe the line of the March 8 alliance like former minister of defense Abdul-Rahim Mourad and former prime minister Omar Karami, “had maintained a civilized face for the Sunni community, based on good relations with the Shias and Christians.”

Regionally, the meeting with Mikati coincided with increasing talk about the Saudis opening a back-channel with the Syrians, whether through Jordanian intelligence or a direct security liaison.

Arab diplomatic sources indicated that Syria told Saudi “there will be no discussions about a solution to the Syrian crisis except under the regime’s umbrella.” These hypothetical discussions wouldn’t take place “before Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish support for the militants has stopped and the latter are withdrawn from Syrian territory.”

In addition, the Jordanians made a “very serious” demand of their own, as sources described it, calling on the Saudi leadership to halt its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups in Jordan. Otherwise, “Jordan may withdraw its army from the Saudi Arabian border, clearing the way for al-Qaeda elements to cross over.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II reportedly told the Saudis that “Jordan is not weak. We will not accept to be economically blackmailed. It is Jordan that protects the Saudi borders.”

In truth, Saudi Arabia does not only face pressure from Jordan and Syria, but also within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). According to the source, the Saudis feel today “that the Kingdom no longer carries the same weight in the organization.” Kuwait and the UAE threatened to pull out of the GCC “if Saudi Arabia continued to back the Salafis.”

Mikati’s meetings in Saudi Arabia do not concern Lebanon alone. Lebanon is the gateway to the entire region, and since Saudi Arabia seeks to restore its presence across the Arab world, its first stop was Lebanon.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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