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What’s behind Hezbollah's Wafiq Safa rare UAE visit?

Wafiq Safa's visit is the first public trip by a Hezbollah official to the United Arab Emirates.
Freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar (L), wearing Hezbollah military fatigues, arrives with his freed comrades (back) and Wafiq Safa (R), Hezbollah coordinator for the prisoner swap with Israel, to the airport in Beirut on July 16, 2008. Five Lebanese prisoners freed by the Israeli authorities arrived in Lebanon today, hours after Hezbollah handed over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers seized by its guerrillas two years ago. Among those freed in a prisoner swap greeted with triumph in Lebanon but anguish i

BEIRUT — A prominent Hezbollah official headed to the United Arab Emirates this week in an unprecedented visit by a member of the militant Iran-backed Lebanese group to the Gulf nation. 

Wafiq Safa, the head of Hezbollah's Liaison and Coordination Unit, traveled to the UAE on a private jet Tuesday. His visit was aimed at negotiating the release of Lebanese citizens detained in the UAE for years, several local media outlets reported.

A spokesperson for Hezbollah confirmed Safa’s visit to L’Orient Today. Hezbollah’s media department and Emirati officials have not commented on the trip.

Safa has headed Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, which coordinates with the group's security services, since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990. He is considered the movement’s main negotiator on prisoners and hostages.

In 2008, Safa helped secure a prisoner swap with Israel. Under the deal, Hezbollah returned the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who were killed during the 2006 war between the movement and Israel. In exchange, Israel released four Hezbollah fighters who were captured during the war in addition to prominent Hezbollah member Samir Kuntar, who had been held in Israel since 1979. Kuntar was later killed in Syria in a 2015 airstrike blamed on Israel. 

Hezbollah-UAE tensions

Ties between Lebanon and Arab Gulf countries have been strained amid the growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah. In 2021, Gulf countries including the UAE recalled their envoys over critical comments by a former Lebanese minister who was close to Hezbollah on the Yemen war and the Saudi-led coalition.

The UAE has also detained dozens of Lebanese nationals, mostly Shiite Muslims, in recent years over their alleged links to Hezbollah, which the GCC designated as a terrorist organization in 2016.

In 2019, an Emirati court handed life sentences to four Lebanese men and sentenced two others to 10 years in prison on charges of forming a terrorist cell linked to Hezbollah to carry out attacks against vital facilities in the Gulf nation, according to UAE authorities.

The Lebanese General Security Directorate has helped secure the release of several batches of Lebanese nationals held in the Gulf country. In May 2023, 10 Lebanese citizens who were arrested by Emirati authorities two months prior were released following the death in Emirati custody of Ghazi Ezzedine, a Shiite Lebanese citizen. His death had sparked widespread controversy amid accusations of torture and an unfair trial.

At least seven Lebanese citizens remain behind bars in the UAE, including the four who received life sentences: Abdullah Hani Abdullah (from Khiyam in south Lebanon, arrested in 2013) Ali Hassan Mobader (from Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon, arrested in 2014), Abdel Rahman Talal Shoman (from Kfardounin in the south, arrested in 2018) and Fawzi Muhammad Dakroub (from Beirut, arrested in 2019).

The remaining three are Ahmed Ali Makkawi (from the northern city of Tripoli, arrested in 2014) and Ahmed Faour (from Khiyam, arrested in 2019), both sentenced to 15 years in prison, as well as Walid Muhammad Idris (from the eastern governorate of Bekaa), who was arrested in 2020 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Unidentified sources told the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen news outlet that Safa headed to the UAE accompanied by an Emirati mediator for talks with Emirati officials on the release of the detainees amid a promising atmosphere.

Another outlet close to Hezbollah, Al-Akhbar, cited its own sources as saying that Safa is expected to return from Abu Dhabi to Beirut on Wednesday after securing the release of the detainees, with the possibility of them returning with him.  

Other Lebanese reports speculated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Hezbollah, helped mediate the talks on the prisoner release and Safa's visit. 

Timing of Safa’s trip

In 2022, the UAE became the first Arab country to welcome Assad since the civil war erupted and in May 2023 the Arab League reinstated Syria’s membership, ending a 12-year suspension.

The region has been witnessing major shifting alliances since the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2020. Several other Arab countries, including Bahrain and Sudan, followed suit.

In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore ties under a Chinese-mediated deal.

Safa’s visit also coincides with escalating tensions in the region in light of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and its spillover to other countries, including in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been engaged in heavy cross-border fighting with the Israeli military since October.

Washington and Paris have been pushing for a diplomatic solution to end the hostilities on the Israeli-Lebanese border and avoid a full-scale war in Lebanon.