Saudi support shores up talks in Lebanon

Saudi Arabia is overwhelmed with risks on several fronts, which might explain its efforts to promote a Sunni-Shiite and a Christian-Christian dialogue in Lebanon and bring its ally Saad Hariri back to the table.

al-monitor An empty chair representing the Lebanese president is pictured at the opening of the Beiteddine International Festival in Beiteddine, Mount Lebanon, June 26, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Sharif Karim.

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sunni-shiite conflict, sectarian tensions, saudi arabia, saad hariri, presidential election, lebanon, islamic state, hezbollah in lebanon

Dec 31, 2014

By the end of 2014, 221 days will have passed in Lebanon without an elected president of the republic. Half a year has passed without any elections to fill the position of head of state and the symbol of national unity, as specified in the Lebanese Constitution.

However, Lebanon seems to be heading toward solutions to its crises, with two dialogues in Beirut apparently linked to Saudi Arabia’s intention to reach a settlement in Lebanon.

The first dialogue, which started Dec. 23 in Beirut, was between the Future Movement, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Hezbollah. These direct talks' dimensions between the two main Sunni and Shiite parties in Lebanon exceed the Lebanese framework. Hezbollah is fully engaged in the ongoing Syrian war and has a structural relationship with Tehran. Hariri, on the other hand, has a direct relationship with some of the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime and an organic relationship with the Saudi regime, even bearing Saudi nationality and spending a lot of time there. Thus, the dialogue between two internal Lebanese parties becomes an indirect or proxy discussion between Riyadh and Tehran, or even between Sunnis and Shiites, in the context of extreme regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions.

The end of 2014 in Lebanon has also witnessed the beginning of another dialogue between the two main Christian leaders in Beirut: Gen. Michel Aoun, head of the largest Christian parliamentary and ministerial bloc, and Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese forces. This dialogue is similarly complex. Each of these two presidential candidates is allied with a party: Aoun is Hezbollah’s ally, and Geagea is Hariri’s. It is said that some of the reasons for the presidential vacuum are due to their disagreement, and that any agreement between them will settle the Lebanese presidential impasse, regardless of other internal or external factors.

The fundamental question remains about the talks' timing. Political ties between Hariri and Hezbollah have been broken for nearly four years, ever since Hezbollah and its allies toppled the Hariri government by resigning in January 2011. Since then, the two parties had done a full political divergence. The rupture between Aoun and Geagea is on a wider scale. The war between the two dates back to almost 25 years ago, starting as a war in 1989 and continuing in various forms.

These two dialogues needed an influential party to take an interest in ending the rupture and initiate talks: Saudi Arabia. Hariri, residing there, initiated the dialogue with Hezbollah while Geagea took the initiative with Aoun, his first Christian rival, following a visit by Aoun to Saudi Arabia, where he met with various key Riyadh officials.

From the available data, one may say that the situation in Saudi Arabia is not all good, externally or internally. The crises plaguing the region and surrounding the Saudi regime are taking a serious toll on the kingdom. In Yemen, Riyadh’s rival, the Houthi movement, now controls most of the countries bordering Saudi Arabia. These countries' geography and populations are historically linked with Saudi Arabia, especially in the heavily Yemeni Asir region. In Bahrain, the Shiite conflict with the Sunni regime backed by Riyadh is still heating up. The situation in Iraq is on the verge of exploding, with the Islamic State (IS) near the Saudi border, putting the Saudi regime under a kind of geographical siege.

The Shiite-majority eastern region is fraught with constant tensions, violence and major terrorist attacks. A Sunni jihadist attacked a Shiite shrine in the Al-Ahsa region in early November, a US citizen was shot dead by Saudi fire in Riyadh Oct. 24 and a Canadian citizen was injured by a Saudi national Nov. 29. The recurrence of such incidents is heightening the concerns of Saudi rulers, prompting action to contain the causes of violence and terrorism.

For all these reasons, Riyadh may have decided to take the initiative before being burned by the fires of the war. Its first decision was to tame tensions on the heated fronts. The first was in Iraq, where an agreement acceptable to the Saudis and Iranians was reached to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with Haider al-Abadi.

Yet, the basic foundation of the new Saudi policy remains involvement in the war against IS. It is worth noting that this war has other heated fronts over which Riyadh may wield multiple kinds of influence, including those in Syria and in Lebanon. While the Saudi position on the ongoing war in Syria is complicated, its stance on the Lebanese crisis is clearer and immediate. It is in Riyadh’s best interest to normalize the situation in Beirut and manage the affairs of the Lebanese authorities to preserve its influence in Lebanon before the situation worsens or evolves in a direction contrary to Saudi interests.

One may also say that Riyadh’s calculations in Beirut are threatened by two dangers: a deteriorating security situation due to terrorism and greater control by IS over the Lebanese Sunni scene, and progress in US-Iranian relations. Both dangers prejudice the interests of the Saudi royal family and reduce its influence in Lebanon. Therefore, it was necessary for Saudi Arabia to move quickly, at least to bring back its primary ally, Hariri, as partner in the Beirut leadership. However, Hariri’s return is impossible without an understanding with Hezbollah and Lebanese presidential elections. It is perhaps for these reasons that the two dialogues started in Beirut: a Sunni-Shiite dialogue to settle the matters between the two Muslim parties and a Christian-Christian dialogue that may open the door to a presidential solution. Thus, the Lebanese start their new year with some optimism, despite 221 days of a vacuum likely to continue for some time in 2015.

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