When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, accompanied by wife and son, pulled up to the Elysee Palace courtyard in a convoy Saturday, he didn’t look like a Levantine billionaire businessman in his early forties moving into exile to live out the rest of his life in great luxury on the Cote d’Azur.

French President Emmanuel Macron does not come to the steps to welcome businessmen publicly at the Elysee. Hariri still wears the crown.

Hariri has announced his return to Beirut to attend the Lebanese Independence Day on Wednesday. The ‘known unknown’ is his promise to discuss his future. “As you know I have resigned, and we will discuss that in Lebanon,” he told reporters, saying he needed to meet with his President Michel Aoun before taking further steps.

The ‘known’ part is that in politics there is never any finality to public statements. The ‘unknown’ part is how seamless is Hariri’s pragmatism, which, of course, is legion.

A worker is seen fixing a huge banner depicting Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri, who resigned a fortnight ago during a visit to Saudi Arabia, in the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A worker fixes a huge banner of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri in the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, November 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ali Hashisho

Hariri’s departure from Saudi Arabia was planned methodically. The historic visit by the Lebanese Marinite Patriarch Beshara Rai to Riyadh last week hinted that a negotiated denouement to the Hariri affair was going to be the preferred exit strategy of Saudi Arabia, which is reeling under heavy international criticism and ridicule.

President Aoun’s public criticism of the alleged ‘abduction’ of Hariri would have played its part, but what probably broke the camel’s back was the backlash of Lebanese public opinion, including from traditionally loyal Sunni clans (who resent living under the shadow of the Hezbollah’s towering presence) who bought into the abduction narrative.

The Lebanese are on razor’s edge, fearing their country’s descent into another civil war.

The Saudis traditionally kept lines open to the Maronite Church but Patriarch Rai’s ‘working visit’ at the personal invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz had no precedent. Rai also met Hariri in Riyadh.

The Saudi hope is to leverage the Patriarch’s influence to reach a new political equilibrium in Lebanon within the co-habitation involving the Hezbollah. Aoun, a Maronite, also happens to have close, cordial ties with Hezbollah.

The Saudi expectation rests on historical foundations. Dating back to the tangled ancient history of the Muslim Middle East’s complex intercourse with Byzantium and Rome, the Maronite Church kept a glorious past for having welcomed Islamic rule in Sham in preference to Byzantium’s.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman walks with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, on November 8, 2017. Photo: Saudi Press Agency via Reuters
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman walks with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, on November 8, 2017. Photo: Saudi Press Agency via Reuters

Clearly, the Saudis are looking for a political accommodation that is not caricatured as a one-dimensional sectarian approach. The intriguing part is that it also involves Iran.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister was in Moscow on a ‘working visit’ on Friday to meet his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, following which the Russian Foreign Ministry stated:

  • Russia reaffirmed its unwavering position in support of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and stability of the Lebanese Republic, including the resolution of all issues on the national agenda by the Lebanese people through an inclusive dialogue, taking into accounts the interests of all leading political forces and religious groups. There can be no place for foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs that threatens to disrupt the existing internal balance… Russia is interested in a strong and stable Lebanon that can help reinforce international and regional security.

Interestingly, Lavrov was to meet his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Antalya, Turkey, on Sunday for a ‘trilateral’ meeting alongside his Turkish hosts regarding a political process in Syria, which is also integral to the future of Lebanon.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (L) enter a hall during a meeting in Sochi, Russia November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Pavel Golovkin/Pool
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (C), Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan (L) at a meeting in Sochi, Russia November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Pavel Golovkin

While Saudi Arabia’s ‘French connection’ remains robust, France’s investments in ‘post-sanctions’ Iran are surging, including energy giant Total’s involvement in the development of the fabulous South Pars gas fields and automaker Renault’s return to a production base in the country.

Surely, Tehran has forewarned France that it should not trespass on Iran’s core interests, including its missile program, in exchange for the commercial concessions.

French diplomacy is astute in tightrope walking, and in this case the stakes are sky high. Macron paid an unscheduled visit to Riyadh last Tuesday and is planning a visit to Tehran next month.

After a conversation with Hariri over lunch, a top official at the Elysee said several tantalizing things:

  • France is not worried that Hariri left behind two of his children in Saudi Arabia “because dad and mom thought it best to leave their two children in Riyadh.”
  • France aims to see Lebanon “regain its stability.” Lebanon should be protected from the “dangers that regional crises can pose to it.” France supports Lebanon’s policy of “decoupling” itself from regional crises. It is essential to protect Lebanon from “negative” foreign influences because the country needs a “strong state.”

Those points could be key elements of the understanding that Saudi Arabia is seeking. No doubt Israeli analysts did well to anticipate that there isn’t going to be a war in Lebanon, after all. The big question now is whether the French will touch base with Hezbollah directly, which wouldn’t be surprising if the outreach happens.

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