Geagea Fights for Prestige in the Era of Prince Bandar
By: Nasser Charara
Published Thursday, September 5, 2013
Following the incidents of 7 May 2008, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea became the “Gulf’s uncrowned king” in Lebanon. Now, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has removed Geagea from his throne, rendering him out of a job after Riyadh propped up the Salafis, at his expense.
Over the past few months, Riyadh, as its Lebanese allies knew it, was absent. A series of changes were introduced to Saudi’s power structure, while Saudi policy on Lebanon was entrusted to Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan. Before this, there had been a range of options for Lebanese politicians to open channels with the Kingdom, by engaging high-level officials like Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz, all the way down to former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Abdul-Aziz Khoja.
Until earlier this year, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, head of the king’s court, wielded immense power and influence over the king’s decisions, drawing the ire of many princes in the royal family. This prompted the Saudi king to try to restore some balance between Tuwaijri and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz.
It was through a loophole in this balance, for example, that MP Tammam Salam came to be designated to form the next Lebanese government. Of course, Bandar does not have the right to veto Salman’s decisions, but the latter tasked Bandar to support Salam because the Saudi agenda in Lebanon – as Syria is the priority – is not political in nature but security-oriented, centering on undercutting Hezbollah rather than appeasing it.
Where Does Geagea Stand?
Sources close to decision-making circles in Saudi say that Geagea has fallen down the list of priorities for the Saudis in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Saudi view of Geagea remains unchanged, with the Lebanese Forces leader seen as someone who is different from the rest of Riyadh’s allies for having an “ideological” enmity with Hezbollah, rather than a political one, as is the case with MP Walid Jumblatt, for instance.
As Lebanon enters “Bandar’s era,” Geagea now serves no significant purpose for Saudi Arabian policy in Lebanon.
To be sure, the Saudi intelligence chief has his own ideological and security strike force in Lebanon against Hezbollah, namely, the Salafis. Meanwhile, politicking over forming the new cabinet has been entrusted to MP Jumblatt, in his capacity as kingmaker under the current parliamentary and governmental balance of power.
Another factor not in favor of Geagea is a recent assessment by the CIA – to which Bandar is close – over his role. Geagea had obtained substantial support from Riyadh to help secure the support of Christians in the Middle East for the Syrian opposition. However, he was unable to produce any significant results in this regard.
Riyadh felt threatened by the visits of Change and Reform head MP Michel Aoun to Syria before the conflict there began. Similarly, Saudi saw the pastoral visit by Maronite Patriarch Bichara al-Rai to Damascus during the crisis as a declaration by Middle Eastern Christians of their support for the Syrian regime. Saudi circles have thus come to ask, “What has Geagea been doing about this?”
Out of Work
For several months now, Geagea has not been invited to visit Saudi Arabia or any Gulf country. Informed sources believe this means that – for the time being – Riyadh has decided to classify him as an “ordinary ally.”
This is while bearing in mind that, between 7 May 2008 and the start of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, Geagea was a “super” ally of Saudi, as evident from the successive invitations he received to visit Gulf countries, and the warm reception he received in Riyadh.
Back then, the ambassador of a certain Gulf state attributed the newfound Gulf interest in Geagea to three reasons: First, Geagea, compared to Jumblatt, was better and more “stable” because his antagonism to Hezbollah was ideological rather than related to political calculations, as is the case with most other politicians.
Second, Geagea told Gulf officials previously that he had conducted a “self-critical” assessment over his role in the Lebanese civil war, up to declaring remorse for actions that have angered the Gulf countries, such as the assassination of a Sunni prime minister (Rashid Karami), and that he would shun any alliance with Israel, instead committing to the Arab policy line against Iran and its allies, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
Third, Geagea succeeded in giving the impression that he was the right man to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon, even militarily if necessary.
During that time, Geagea was the Gulf’s uncrowned king in Lebanon. Even Saad Hariri was irked by him for some time, particularly when Hariri was told that the budget allocated for Geagea would be given directly to him, rather than through Hariri.
Now, Saudi circles are doubtful that Geagea’s privileges are still intact. They say, “True, Riyadh has not cut off aid to Geagea, unlike with everyone in Lebanon after the last general election. But under Bandar, Riyadh has diverted funding to the Salafi groups that have been pitted against Hezbollah, at the orders of Bandar personally.”
When the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Asiri looked like he was initiating efforts for rapprochement with MP Aoun, Geagea’s Maronite archrival, the latter held his breath. To be sure, the Saudi move meant that as far as Saudi policy in Lebanon was concerned, Geagea was now unemployed.
Since that time, according to close associates of Geagea, he started grumbling about what he calls the “vacuity” of the agenda pursued by the Arab and Western countries allied with March 14 in Lebanon, and their lack of an action plan, focusing instead on intelligence gathering and observation.
In this regard, sources indicate that Geagea staged his appearance during the memorial service for the Lebanese Forces’ fallen fighters to remind outside actors, particularly in the Gulf, that he was still there, as if to tell them that they would be mistaken if they treated him like a forgotten ally.
Geagea was sure to include in his speech hints that it was in his ability to begin the “bazaar” that is the next presidential race, and that he was either the appropriate candidate for the post of president following Bashar al-Assad’s ouster in Syria.
But Geagea, after all, must no doubt be aware of Saudi’s desire to have a permanently weak president who must not compete with the prime minister in Lebanon.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.