Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch hopes for better ties with Riyadh
BEIRUT – 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.
Without responding directly to the patriarch’s plea for better ties, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon Waleed al 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.
The centennial of Saudi relations with the church took place on the same day as the US and French envoys to Lebanon jointly visited Riyadh to discuss support for the troubled country.
The French and US ambassadors to Beirut held talks with Saudi officials in Riyadh and their embassies tweeted that the “important trilateral consultations” aimed to find ways how they can together “support the Lebanese people and stabilise the economy.”
Saudi Arabia has been staying out of Lebanese politics as its influence waned in the face of the rising power of its regional rival, Iran.
Lebanon’s Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group has gained more power over the past decade.
The US, the European Union and Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, consider Hezbollah or its military wing a terrorist organisation and have imposed sanctions on its officials and institutions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met French and Saudi counterparts in Italy on the sidelines of the Group 20 meeting last month. Blinken said at the time they discussed Lebanon’s crisis and called on Lebanese politicians to show “real leadership.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday that a Lebanese government needs to be cohesive and responsive to the Lebanese people and put the public interests first. Price also said fundamental reforms are needed to rescue the Lebanese economy.
“Corruption, impunity, lawlessness have dogged successive governments and ultimately and most importantly, have drained the Lebanese people of much needed resources,” Price said.