By Ghassan Saoud
Wanted: A Guardian of Lebanon. Before Saudi Arabia sought to control Lebanese affairs, Syria watched over the country in the name of common borders and Arabism. Before that, the French had their words of “compassion.” The Saudi mandate promises to give and take like the French, with a boost in tourists and cash.
Before his visit to Saudi Arabia three years ago, head of the Independence Movement Michel Mouawad complained to the US embassy in Beirut “that Saudi promises to cover March 14’s expenses for the June 2009 parliamentary elections had not yet been fulfilled,” according to a leaked cable.
That night, he promised his mother, former minister Nayla Mouawad to order kabsa not cornflakes, when the Saudis ask him what he would like to eat. When he had ordered cornflakes in former Syrian mukhabarat chief Rustum Ghazali’s office, the latter thought that Mouawad was cursing him, according to a story told by Ghazali.
After the visit, he returned the money he had borrowed from al-Zaghloul, the best shawarma place in Zgharta and began issuing statements about the “Kingdom’s dignity and pride,” when needed. Former MP Elias Skaff followed suit, followed by former minister Elias Murr, MPs Walid Jumblatt, Sami Gemayel, Boutros Harb, and Fouad Siniora.
Before visiting Saudi, Gemayel would not attend a function that hung the king’s portrait. After his visit, he could be provoked by any criticism of Gulf countries, reminding Lebanese officials of the need “to be loyal to those who stand by their people.”
It soon became clear that the contractors of Syrian tutelage were beginning to make headway through their direct pilgrimage to the Saudi guardian, whose banner was waved by prime minister designate Tammam Salam right before being asked to form the new government. However, this “ritual” was never imposed by Syrian tutelage, neither at the beginning of its era with prime minister Omar Karami (1990), nor on Rashid el-Solh (1992), Salim el-Hoss (1998), or the five times Rafik Hariri was asked to form a government.
The Syrian ambassador and those who were in his place representing the Syrian regime never conducted governmental consultations in such a (shameless) public manner as those of the Saudi ambassador today. Both guardians use the same terms claiming “non-intervention in Lebanese affairs.”
The taxi driver, on our way to Verdun, became confused when hearing those words on the radio being repeated by Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri. He thought it was Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, getting more puzzled when Assiri said that his country’s heart is open to everyone and “blesses any consensus between the Lebanese.” That was even before the two rhetorics became almost identical when he added that Hezbollah’s weapons are an “internal matter.”
However, there is a “fundamental” difference between the two guardianships. The Saudi embassy guards do not write on its walls, like the Syrian mukhabarat used to do, that the Saudis and Lebanese are one people in two countries or that “humans cannot separate what history and geography brought together.”
Neither are the two peoples one, nor is there a common history and geography. Historians, nationalists, and others, believe that Saudi interest in Lebanon had aimed to sabotage Lebanese-Iraqi relations, then Palestinian and Syria relations. The Sauds are obsessed with the threat of the unity of what is sometimes called the fertile crescent and other times the Shia crescent.
Syrian tutelage used Arabhood as a pretext and protected itself with an army of soldiers and spies. Saudi guardianship, on the other hand, does not have ostensible reasons and does not protect itself except with the influence of its political funding.
Religious experts concur that the confessional relationship between the Saudis and Lebanese Sunnis is hostage to small and young extremist groups, due to the Wahhabism of the former and the Sufism of the other.
Based on this, a veteran MP draws the following sketch. There is a regional power saying it can tame the Lebanese, not by representing their religious, ideological, or progressive aspirations, nor by terrorizing them with its army and intelligence agents. But because it can buy them all.
Jumblatt Embarrases the Saudis and Assiri Repeats
After Walid Jumblatt broke the pact between the Saudis and the Syrians, Saudi Arabia packed its money bags and left Beirut before Saad Hariri. On 1 January 2011, the Saudis stopped all financial support to Lebanese factions and public institutions, whether for development, education, or social services.
A Future Movement MP from North Lebanon explained that the Saudis sent a circular to all the princes asking them to stop all kinds of donations, followed by a semi-official ban on Saudi tourism in Lebanon. However, his colleague from Beirut maintained that bags full of Riyals were reaching Salafi Sheikh al-Shahhal and his cohorts, but not as a result of official Saudi orders.
Despite the Kingdom’s efforts to overthrow the Syrian regime by any means necessary, the Future Movement source added, its intelligence did not exploit the excitement of some Lebanese. This led to Qatar adopting the Saudi orphans of Saida, Tripoli, and Akkar.
The Saudi ambassador, coming to Lebanon from an eight-year diplomatic stint in Pakistan, did not close his embassy’s doors, however. Ali Awad Assiri was in daily contact with former prime minister Siniora, MP Nouhad al-Machnouk, and former minister Mohammed Shatah, from inside the Future Movement, and editor-in-chief of al-Liwaa newspaper Salah Salam, from outside.
Assiri renewed his diplomatic and security staff at the embassy. He moved from the “isolation” of Ramlet el-Baida to the “bustle” of Yarze, bolstering his relationship with his neighbors, former head of the Maronite League Hareth Shehab and Umayya al-Lawzi.
Through social relations and disbursing diplomatic visas to some Lebanese politicians, he paved the way for the Kingdom’s return to Lebanon.
The Real Replaces the Virtual
According to a March 8 MP, the main difference in this latest round of Saudi intervention is the lack of Saudi surrogates. Former prime minister Saad Hariri remains in voluntary exile and his predecessor Fouad Siniora is beleaguered with his animosities.
On the other hand, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, of the famous saying, “Let the Muslim Brotherhood rule,” is closer to Qatar in Saudi’s calculations. Additionally, no one in the Kingdom wants to go back to MP Walid Jumblatt, despite his principal role in their return to Beirut. This forced the real guardian to replace the virtual surrogate.
A Future Movement MP indicated that rumors about differing Saudi viewpoints on the Lebanese issue were inaccurate. Both Saudi entities charged with the Lebanese dossier, the foreign ministry and the intelligence department belong to the same side.
However, the group represented by foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, and Assiri in turn, are enthusiastic about filling the void in the “needed” guardianship over the Lebanese.
The source indicated that it is impossible for the representative of Saudi foreign policy in Lebanon to extend his hand to any party with military and security presence, such as Hezbollah, without the consent of the Saudi intelligence services. He stressed that the relationship between the embassy and Hezbollah remains in the courtship stages.
A source close to caretaker prime minister Mikati, maintained that the strong Saudi intervention in Lebanon was not preceded, however, with Saudi-Iranian communication on this regard. But an Iranian facilitation of the Saudi mission could create an opening in their relationship, repeating the 2009 Syrian-Saudi scenario.
In the meantime, a former Hezbollah MP explained that “the Kingdom did not change its strategic goal in its intervention in Lebanon, nor its priorities. It merely changed the modus operandi.” This meant that Hezbollah needed to do the same.
According to one of its Aouni friends, the Kingdom’s need to run the Lebanese situation will force them to work with Hezbollah and Amal, despite being reluctant and knowing their regional links. This is just like in the past when Syrian tutelage was forced to work with Hariri and others, despite their regional and international alliances. Thus is the fate of guardians.
According to a source close to Mikati, the Saudi embassy aims to fulfill its mission and is receiving some help on the issue regionally, at a time when the Future Movement is becoming more inflexible.
Future TV launched a tirade against Bassil and Michel Aoun, reminding them of their former positions on the Kingdom, following the meeting between the Saudi ambassador and minister Gebran Bassil.
In conclusion, the Saudis seek to impose their guardianship on the Lebanese. It is a tutelage without soldiers or “Arabism,” but with a bit of mukhabarat.
Before the Saudis, France had occupied Lebanon with its compassion. The Saudi mandate, contrary to the Syrian, gives and takes like the French. The Saudi ambassador promises the Lebanese to fill their hotels with tourists and pack Maameltein, only if they allow him to take over their country.
Go for it.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.