Behind Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia
The recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar by Lebanese President Michel Aoun was aimed at winning back Saudi donations to the Lebanese Army and re-establishing Lebanon as a touristic destination for Gulf country citizens. Some political analysts also saw in the visit a renewed triumph for Lebanon’s open-door policy and the laying down of a welcome mat for more Arabs returning to the country.
These readings overlook, whether deliberately or inadvertently, the series of events and reasons that had led to Aoun’s visit.
The first thing to note is that the trip came after a Saudi- French deal regarding the Saudi $3 billion donation to the Lebanese Army that was contingent on buying French-made weapons. The deal must have lessened Saudi fears that the new weapons would end up in the hands of the Hezbollah militia by stipulating that the manufacturing and delivery of the weaponry be carried out in several lots and phases in accordance with the immediate needs of the Lebanese Army.
In France, Syrian President Bashar Assad is being rehabilitated politically. He recently played host to right-wing French representative Thierry Mariani. Other French politicians’ visits are likely to follow, which would seem to indicate a change in the countries’ relations with the rise of the conservative right in French politics. The French right is, on the whole, favourable to the Syrian president.
It would seem then that direct French economic interests in conjunction with forthcoming new foreign policies have laid the groundwork for the visit of a Lebanese president considered in Saudi Arabia as belonging to the camp opposing the Syrian- Iranian axis in the region.
We must not also overlook Russian interests in the affair. Before being scrapped in deference to American sensitivities, a project by the Lebanese Army to purchase $500 million worth of Russian weapons had been in the works. The Americans were, at the time, providing aid to the Lebanese Army in the form of weapons and equipment.
US-Russian relations are on the threshold of a new and completely different era. With Donald Trump in the White House, American reservations on the armament deal with Russia may be lifted. Some sources indicated that Aoun’s agenda in Saudi Arabia included discussing using part of the Saudi donation or funds from other Gulf sources to finance the deal with Russia.
Iran did not try to torpedo Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia simply because it is compatible with its interests in Lebanon and the region. The eventual return of Saudi Arabia on the Lebanese scene, despite the heavy presence of Hezbollah there, would count as recognition of Iran’s influence in the region. Iran will also try to barter its influence in other hot spots such as Yemen and Syria.
Contrary to what many may say, Hezbollah is not opposed to the return of Gulf tourists to Lebanon. Many of its members and sympathisers work in tourism and have been suffering during the severe crisis in the sector. With the Shia party waging a war in Syria and funds being more scarce, Hezbollah can no longer financially support all its sympathisers. More tourists returning to Lebanon would work to its economic advantage.
Their eventual return to the country carries with it more than economic recovery. It could also be exploited politically. Aoun, for example, might market it as a major achievement that would also strengthen Christian hold on power. With economic recovery, the Sunni side, namely the Future Movement Party, might be amenable to accept the government’s decisions.
Iran may also use guaranteeing the safety of Saudi tourists in Lebanon as a gesture of goodwill. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran, paid a visit to Lebanon prior to Aoun’s trip to Saudi Arabia and renewed Iran’s offer to equip the Lebanese Army.
Among these strategies and projects by France, Russia and Iran in Lebanon, an Arab project is painfully absent. These countries have built their projects and strategies in Lebanon on clear and direct interests. Even Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia was planned with these interests in mind.
The return of normal Lebanese-Gulf relations is meaningless in the absence of a clear Arab project for Lebanon.