Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh. This photograph was released by the Saudi Royal Court on November 11, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Two weeks ago, a diplomatic visit went largely unnoticed by media in the Lebanese city of Baalbak, a traditional power base for the Hezbollah political party located east of the Litani River. The two Gulf state diplomats arrived on a clear Friday and were taken on a tour by Baalbak’s mufti, Sheikh Khaled Salah.

Walid al-Boukhari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, and his United Arab Emirates (UAE) counterpart Hamad al-Shamis prayed at Baalbak’s Umayyad Mosque and met with community leaders, including Hussein Sulh, a candidate in next month’s scheduled parliamentary elections.

They later visited the Faisal Ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Saud Mosque in Baalbak, named after the third Saudi monarch and brother of current King Salman. The high-powered visit was ripe with symbolism just weeks ahead of Lebanon’s election, a demonstration of how far Saudi Arabia is willing to go to challenge Hezbollah deep within its home territory.

Riyadh apparently wanted to respond to the non-stop stream of top Iranian officials visiting Baalbak, who now appear to regard the city as a natural extension of their paramount influence in Lebanon.

The choice of the Umayyad Mosque was highly symbolic due to its history, named after an empire that is loathed (to say the least) by Muslim Shiites.

So, too, was the diplomats’ tour of the Saudi influenced King Faisal Mosque and visit with Husssein Sulh, a parliamentary hopeful allied to Saudi-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a staunch critic of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah supporters accused the two Gulf diplomats of distributing cash to voters ahead of the May 6 parliamentary election.

The symbolism, however, did not stop there. Two days later, Hariri led an ensemble of senior politicians to the seaside city of Beirut, where he named a major street in honor of Saudi King Salman Ibn Abdul-Aziz—an event that was predictably boycotted by Hezbollah and the Iranian Embassy.

Until now, few politicians have challenged Hezbollah in the Baalbak-Hermel governorate, due largely to its Muslim Shiite majority and their overwhelming support for Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, a position he has held since 1992.

Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s coalition government and wields extensive influence in the country’s politics.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters from a screen during a rally in Beirut, Lebanon, April 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Aziz Taher

The United States, European Union and others consider Hezbollah a terror organization; Russia has close ties to the group while China maintains contacts.

The Baalbek-Hermel governorate has a total of 43,000 Christians, 43,000 Sunnis, and 230,000 Shiites. The area is also home to over 100,000 Syrian refugees and a smaller number of Palestinians, putting more strain on what was already one of the country’s poorest regions.

The governorate accounts for 10 seats in parliament. Saudi Arabia, it seems, is trying to ensure that at least one of the seats, a Christian or Sunni one, goes to Hariri’s rather than Hezbollah’s allies.

Hariri has already teamed up with heavyweight Christian leader Samir Gagegea of the Lebanese Forces (LF), with the two drawing up joint candidate lists for Baalbak-Hermel against Hezbollah.

The Saudis are apparently concerned that Hezbollah could make gains at the polls, building on their present 12 seats in the 128-seat parliament. The party is expected to be helped by its alliance with retired General Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security Directorate, who is joining the race in the pivotal Bekka Valley.

There is speculation that Nasrallah is personally handling the governorate’s elections and will be speaking to his followers from Baalbak, its capital, on May 5, hours before voters go to the polls.

He has already promised to personally walk the streets of Baalbak, “to tour villages, towns and neighborhoods to make sure that this list wins.” The last time the Lebanese voted, voter turnout was low in Baalbak, with only 57% of Shiites and 13% of Christians casting their ballots.

Baalbak residents feel neglected and persistently accuse the central government of paying their communities little heed outside of election seasons.

“Because this (electoral district) means what it means to Hezbollah, they will put all their efforts there,” Nasrallah said in February, while accusing the Saudi and US embassies in Beirut of trying to manipulate the province’s vote.

More recently, he said that those running on Hariri-backed lists in Baalbak-Hermel are allies of terrorism: “We won’t allow the allies of (Jabhat) al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and ISIS to represent the district.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in Beirut, April 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Jamal Saidi

The district has come under al-Nusra and ISIS attacks in recent years in spillovers from the Syrian war. Nasrallah has also warned Lebanon faces a debt crisis and has urged the government to rationalize spending, reduce public debt and combat corruption.

Lebanon’s public debt ratio is currently around 150% of gross domestic product, one of the highest such levels in the world.

Cash-rich Saudi Arabia’s policy in Lebanon is in-line with Riyadh’s recent overtures toward Iraq, where it has maneuvered around enemy lines to penetrate deep into Iranian pockets of influence in Baghdad and other areas ahead of parliamentary elections.

Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman even received and gave royal treatment to powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a long-time ally of Iran whose militants had hunted and killed prominent Iraqi Sunni notables after the US invasion of 2003.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari both visited Riyadh twice last year at the invitation of the Saudi king.

Meanwhile, another Iranian ally, Ammar al-Hakim, was pressured to step down from the leadership of the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a post traditionally held by members of his family since its founding in Tehran during the 1980s.

The three men were groomed and created by the Iranians and have allegedly been on Tehran’s payroll for years. Since 2003, Saudi Arabia had accused Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein rulers of being Iran’s stooges, but are now seemingly successfully pulling them into its Arab orbit.

Saudi Arabia’s policy in pre-election Lebanon may be slightly different but the aim is the same. While Riyadh has made no attempt to reach out to Hezbollah, consistent with its past hands-off policy in areas controlled by Iran’s ally, it is now aiming to challenge both directly on their home turf.

Sami Moubayed is a former Carnegie scholar and author of “Under the Black Flag” (IB Tauris, 2015)

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