Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric said on Thursday he hoped for an improvement in ties with Saudi Arabia, which has withheld support for the crisis-torn Lebanese economy because of the rising influence of its arch-enemy Hezbollah.
Lebanon is battling an economic meltdown that poses the worst threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Saudi Arabia, which had long channelled funds into Lebanon’s fragile economy alongside other Gulf monarchs, has so far been reluctant to step in during the current crisis, keeping its distance as Hezbollah advances politically.
“Saudi Arabia has not violated Lebanon’s sovereignty or its independence, it has not violated its borders or involved it in wars,” Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said in a speech at an event celebrating 100 years of Saudi relations with the church.
Rai, a harsh critic of the heavily armed Hezbollah, has called for Lebanon to remain neutral, referring to Hezbollah’s deployment of fighters to Syria and its alliance with Iran in a power struggle with Saudi Arabia.
The centennial, which was attended by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon Waleed al Bukhari, is taking place on the same day as the U.S. and French envoys to Lebanon jointly visit Riyadh to discuss support for the troubled country.
Without responding directly to the patriarch’s plea for better ties, Bukhari expressed the hope that Lebanon’s squabbling politicians can focus on the national interest “to face the challenges the country is facing”, referring to attempts by some factions to upset Lebanon’s strong links to the Arab world.
The patriarch traditionally wields influence in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church, a group from which the president must be drawn under a sectarian power-sharing system.
In more detailed comments the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon said on Thursday that the depth of the relationship between the Kingdom and the Maronite Patriarchate “represents a real guarantee to preserve a free, sovereign and independent Lebanon.”
He also stressed that “there is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife and division, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.”
Political observers in Lebanon told Arab News that “the timing of the Saudi stance is extremely important, especially since it reassured concerned parties that the Kingdom will not abandon Lebanon in its political, financial and economic crises.”
Saudi Arabia “will not leave Lebanon to face a dark fate alone nor will it involve it in axes far from its Arab identity,” said the observers.
The envoy was speaking at a celebration held in Bkirki, the headquarters of the Maronite Patriarchate, on the occasion of the publication of the book “The Maronite Patriarchate’s Relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Father Antoine Daou.
His remarks came as the US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and her French counterpart Anne Grillo were visiting Saudi Arabia for meetings with Saudi officials.
Their visit comes in the wake of the June 29 tripartite meeting on Lebanon between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. They met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Matera, Italy.
Bukhari on Thursday also called on political parties “to prioritize Lebanon’s national interest to confront the attempts of some to harm Lebanon’s close relationship with its Arab depth.”
The constitution’s preamble “states with complete clarity that Lebanon is an ultimate homeland for all its sons; Lebanon has an Arab identity and belonging; there is no legitimacy to any authority contradicting the charter of coexistence,” he said.
Bukhari added: “Based on the importance of the national and all-embracing role of Patriarch (Bechara Boutros) Al-Rahi, we recommend preserving diversity and coexistence, whose foundations were laid by the Taif Agreement, which is entrusted with national unity and civil peace.
The envoy added that the Kingdom “does not allow Lebanon’s identity to be compromised for any reason.”
He said that both Christians and Muslims “are essential components of this authentic Eastern Arab identity.”
A presidential representative and a gathering of political, military, union, religious and diplomatic figures attended the event.
Al-Rahi said: “This inclusive meeting will be a heartfelt call for a comprehensive national meeting that leads to saving Lebanon.”
He said the government “shall be formed, and parliamentary and presidential elections shall be held on time per the constitution; only then will we walk the path of salvation.”
Al-Rahi added that Saudi Arabia “has always understood the meaning and value of Lebanon’s existence in the heart of the Arab world, and it never attempted to stir conflicts. On the contrary, it sought to preserve Lebanon’s neutral position and ensure its sovereignty and independence.”
Al-Rahi said Saudi Arabia “did not harm Lebanon’s sovereignty, did not violate its independence, did not violate its borders, and did not involve it in wars. It did not disrupt its democracy and did not ignore its state.”
He said the Kingdom “supported Lebanon in Arab and international forums, provided it with financial aid and invested in its economic and urban regeneration projects.”
He added that the Kingdom “sponsored reconciliations and solutions, welcomed the Lebanese and provided them with residencies and job opportunities.”
Al-Rahi pointed out: “With Saudi Arabia, Arabism unfolded openness, moderation, respecting the specifics of each country, people and group, and committing to the concept of sovereignty and independence.
“With Saudi Arabia, Arabism emerged as an emotion, not an ideological project that challenges national feelings and characteristics and minimizes nationalities and identities.”
A statement from the US Embassy said that Shea “will discuss the gravity of the situation in Lebanon during her meetings in Saudi Arabia.”
It added that the ambassador “will emphasize the importance of humanitarian assistance to the Lebanese people, as well as increased support for the Lebanese armed forces and the Internal security forces.”
In partnership with her French and Saudi counterparts, Shea will also continue to develop “our trilateral diplomatic strategy focused on government formation and the imperative of undertaking urgent and essential reforms that Lebanon so desperately needs,” the statement continued.
The French Embassy said that Grillo’s visit “is an extension of the joint meeting in Italy.”
It said Le Drian and Blinken “had previously pointed out in Paris on June 25 the inability of the Lebanese political leaders, so far, to give priority to the public interest of Lebanon over their own interests, and agreed on the need for France and the US to work together to get Lebanon out of the crisis.”
During her meetings, the French ambassador “will stress the urgent need for Lebanese officials to form an effective and credible government that works to achieve the necessary reforms in the interest of Lebanon, in accordance with the aspirations of the Lebanese people,” added the statement.
Along with her US counterpart, Grillo will express the desire of France and the US to cooperate with their regional and international partners to put pressure on those responsible for the disruption.
She “will stress the need for French humanitarian aid to be provided directly to the Lebanese people, to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and to the Internal Security Forces, which France and the US will continue to support,” the statement added.
During a meeting with diplomats on Tuesday, Grillo responded to Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who accused the international community of besieging Lebanon.
“The Lebanese crisis is the result of mismanagement that lasted for decades and not the result of an external siege,” Grillo said.
“The political class is responsible; you are besieging yourselves by not forming a government,” said Grillo.
Source: Reuters, Arab News