Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Awad al-Asiri, has been the focus of attention lately as a result of remarkable political overtures toward internal factions that the kingdom, and its ambassador, had had frosty or nonexistent relations with, particularly the Free Patriotic Movement.
The new Saudi flexibility coincides with Tammam Salam being chosen to form the new government. This appointment signals the opening of previously locked doors between Riyadh and the former majority’s components, in addition to negating the effects of the “veto on tourism” to Lebanon, with the resumption of flights from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf to Beirut. All these developments lead observers to ask questions about the breadth of this transformation and the extent of its reach in the future.
Asiri affirmed to As-Safir that the kingdom was not at loggerheads with any of Lebanon’s factions, “and I’ve communicated with all internal political forces since assuming my responsibilities as ambassador to Lebanon, albeit to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.” He stressed that Saudi Arabia’s heart was open to all.
Concerning his recent meeting with Minister Gebran Bassil, Asiri asserted that it was positive, “and Gen. Michel Aoun is welcomed by us, as are all other Lebanese figures, regardless of their political affiliations.” Smiling, he added that there had been “a break in the relationship with Aoun for a while, maybe because the brothers at the Free Patriotic Movement distance themselves from us whenever they have disagreements with certain internal factions. But communication has resumed between us now.”
What about the nature of the relationship with Hezbollah?
Asiri explained that he and Hezbollah were in various forms of constant contact, and that the differences in opinion with the party concerning some political matters did not pose any real problems, but are in fact natural and healthy manifestations that must be employed for Lebanon’s benefit, while noting that the points of agreement exceeded those of disagreement.
He considered genuine, serious and sincere dialogue with Hezbollah enough to address all differences, or at least put them in proper perspective, “for we are friendly in our communications; I have visited Sheikh Naim Qassem in the past, and MP Mohammad Raad visits us from time to time. We also have contact by telephone, and they attend our celebrations; there is therefore no real break with Hezbollah.”
Concerning the possibility of a meeting between himself and a Hezbollah delegation, Asiri said, “Our doors and hearts are open, the party is the most welcome.”
In response to a question about the nature of the commonality in views between Riyadh and Hezbollah at this stage, the Saudi ambassador said: “What binds us is a sense of brotherhood and love for Lebanon; while we disagree on some matters, these disagreements will never sour our friendship.”
When asked about Hezbollah’s weapons, Asiri replied, “This is an internal Lebanese matter.”
He emphasized that Saudi Arabia was keen to adopt a balanced policy toward all Lebanese factions, and stand equidistant from them all. “We hope that these factions will also make overtures toward one another and engage in a constructive dialogue that serves Lebanon’s interests. It is true that there are differences in opinion about specific political issues between us and certain factions, but that does not negate our desire to have good relations with all. This is evident in Saudi Arabia welcoming hundreds of thousands of Lebanese belonging to various religious communities and espousing different political views, because the kingdom does not differentiate between one Lebanese and another.”
Is it true that Lebanon has become the stage of a Saudi-Iranian conflict?
Asiri rejected this premise, saying: “We are not fighting anyone on Lebanese soil. The kingdom traditionally shuns conflict, and our relationship with Iran is a good one. Saudi Arabia has diplomats in Tehran, and Iran has diplomats in Riyadh. Any disagreements that the two countries may have can be overcome.”
What about Saudi Arabia’s role in the naming of Salam as prime minister?
Asiri denied that Riyadh intervened in the appointment of Salam, saying: “The brothers in the March 8 coalition know that very well. We also will not interfere in the formation of the cabinet, for that is a purely Lebanese affair, and the Lebanese must choose their government on their own. We only hope that the near-consensus garnered to name Salam be reflected on the task of forming the cabinet, and serve to bolster stability.” He further described the March 8 coalition’s stance about naming Salam as “positive.”
Asiri pointed out that the optimistic atmosphere that has prevailed over Lebanon lately, especially after the quasi-unanimous naming of Salam as prime minister, had positive effects on Saudi Arabians, as reflected by the many fully booked flights coming from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf to Lebanon in the past few days. “Your hotels are also teeming with guests, and we expect the upcoming Lebanese summer holiday season to be prosperous, if positivity endures.”
The Saudi ambassador wondered: “Who is benefiting from this resurgence in tourism?” And his answer was, “All Lebanese factions and religious communities, regardless of their political affiliation.”
Asiri stressed that Lebanon deserves all the efforts that Saudi Arabia is expanding toward guaranteeing its recovery and bridging the gap between its constituents. He emphasized that political differences between internal factions must remain bound by their proper contexts: “Let everyone take their rightful share of parliamentary seats, and leave the country in peace.”