Allegations about Hariri’s Saudi ties make waves
The positions issued by the Future Movement and its leader Saad Hariri in recent years, culminating in the shock endorsement of Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh for president last November, have been surprising to many in the March 14 alliance.
A recent statement from Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a prominent member of the Future Movement, claiming that the former prime minister was pressured to nominate Frangieh, a member of the rival March 8 bloc, at the behest of Saudi Arabia made waves across Lebanon.
Although many articles and analyses have elaborated on the role Saudi Arabia has played in Hariri’s policies since he was pressured to visit Damascus in 2009 to seek to open a new chapter in Lebanese-Syrian relations, there have been no leaks from within the Future Movement to suggest this. This is something that would, to many, explain some of Hariri’s curious decision-making in the past.
The statement by Machnouk alleging Riyadh’s role in the decisions taken by Hariri represents an unexpected revelation from within the Future Movement. This would also help to justify the Future Movement’s weak showing in municipal elections in Lebanon’s Sunni-dominated city of Tripoli, losing to an electoral list backed by former Justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who had resigned following a spat with Hariri over the handling of a case related to former minister Michel Samaha.
Observers said Machnouk may be trying to expose Hariri’s secrets, revealing what the Future Movement leader cannot. Strengthening Machnouk’s claims, diplomatic sources have come out in the media to allege that foreign ambassadors had explored the idea of nominating Frangieh for president and that Hariri would not have put forward this proposal without a green light from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi circles say Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad al-Asiri’s denial of Machnouk’s allegations and his affirmation that Saudi Arabia does not interfere in Lebanon’s domestic affairs are an accurate summation of the “official” Saudi position.
At the same time, Riyadh has said it would not stand in the way of any initiative that leads to filling Lebanon’s vacant presidency and that it has encouraged all sides, including Hariri, to work together to elect a president — without specifying a preferred candidate.
Lebanese political figures have come out to say that Machnouk’s comments, which specified that this proposal took place during King Abdullah’s reign and not the current Saudi leadership — shed light on the nature of relations between Riyadh and Beirut, even if these are not comparable to Tehran’s relationship with Hezbollah.
For many political observers, Hezbollah is completely dependent on Iran. While the relationship between Hariri and Riyadh is characterised by complete freedom and the ability for the Future Movement leader to adopt whatever political action required to serve both their interests in Lebanon.
Some diplomatic sources said Machnouk’s allegations are not based on his personal feelings but aim to express a view that is gaining prevalence within the Future Movement, particularly as Hariri seems somewhat out of favour in Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s official response to Machnouk’s allegations was issued by the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon. As for the unofficial response, this was issued in certain Saudi newspapers that expressed anger at King Abdullah’s administration being blamed for the Future Movement’s flagging fortunes, highlighting the strong positions that the kingdom’s late monarch took in defence of Hariri’s Future Movement and the March 14 alliance.
The Future Movement leadership sought to mitigate the effects of Machnouk’s claims without completely disowning them, revealing that the allegations perhaps reflect a view from within the party itself. It seems that Machnouk did not expect the political and media storm that would accompany his claims, quickly coming out to say that he was expressing his own personal view, not that of his party.
Ultimately, Machnouk’s statement only serves to affirm the political atmosphere that has dogged the Future Movement since its municipal election defeat in Tripoli. The Rifi-backed electoral list’s victory in Tripoli was a shock for all Future Movement leadership and particularly Machnouk.
At a time when there have been whispers of the rivalry between Rifi and Machnouk over leadership of Lebanon’s Sunni community, particularly during Hariri’s long absence from Lebanon, it is clear that Rifi is in the ascendancy. Perhaps this is what prompted Machnouk to look for reasons for the Future Movement’s poor performance.