Visit by Beirut-based Western ambassadors slated to be an irritant for Saudi Arabia

In an unusual diplomatic move, two ambassadors of two major powers, the US and France, are visiting a third country outside their place of accreditation to urge it to provide aid to Lebanon.
Thursday 08/07/2021
A file picture shows French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, speaking with the French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo, left, during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2021. (AP)
A file picture shows French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, speaking with the French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo, left, during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon, May 6, 2021. (AP)

BEIRUT – A statement issued by the embassies of France and the United States said that the two countries’ ambassadors in Beirut, Anne Grillo and Dorothy Shea, will travel to Saudi Arabia for meetings on Lebanon Thursday with Saudi officials.

Although the French embassy said prior arrangements were made at the diplomatic level and asserted that Saudi Arabia has not objected to receiving the two ambassadors, the visit is likely to provoke Riyadh’s ire.

The meeting to be held Thursday between the two ambassadors and Saudi officials is expected to discuss aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces.

By dispatching two envoys outside their geographic mandate, instead of their chief diplomats, to discuss the Lebanese issue, Washington and Paris are signalling that they are still boycotting the Saudi leadership.

Washington believes that the experience of its ambassador in Tripoli, Richard Norland, as a roving envoy who visited the countries concerned with the Libyan crisis justifies using the same formula with Lebanon.

But if this is the case, Washington and Paris would each be showing extreme diplomatic naiveté both in their understanding of the Saudi-Lebanese relationship and Riyadh’s sensitivity to the implicit boycott by Paris and Washington.

Riyadh may not overtly express its discontent, but is most certainly unlikely to allow other countries to continue dealing with it at the level of envoys and ambassadors.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Italy at the end of last month, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held a tripartite meeting on Lebanon with French Foreign Ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

It is likely that the tripartite meeting paved the way for the two ambassadors’ visit to Riyadh.

The visit of the two envoys coincides with the trip of Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington and his meetings with senior American officials. The talks would provide an opportunity to discuss the Lebanese issue if there is interest in Riyadh or Washington to discuss it at this stage.

A statement by the French embassy in Beirut indicated that Grillo would emphasise during the expected meetings, “the urgency for Lebanese officials to form an effective and credible government that works to achieve the necessary reforms in the interest of Lebanon.”

The two ambassadors will also express their country’s desire to “work with their regional and international partners to put pressure on those responsible for the blockage.”

Saudi Arabia is not particularly enthused by the prospect of coming to the aid of Lebanon as it believes Lebanese officials have handed over control of their country to Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Riyadh has spared no effort in years past to support Lebanon and urge the political actors there to prevent its dependence on any foreign party.

But the Lebanese continued to view the kingdom as an financier whose sole task is to pump money into the country and revive the economy and tourist industry without political strings attached, a course of action that Riyadh no longer accepts.

An Arab diplomatic source in Beirut said that “Saudi Arabia has not yet shown an interest in getting involved in the details” of needed aid or the government formation process.

It is clear that Washington and Paris are pressing Lebanon’s traditional donor countries to provide urgent aid to the Lebanese army and security forces.

The official Qatari news agency QNA said that Qatar will provide the Lebanese army with about seventy tons of foodstuffs per month. The initiative was announced on the sidelines of a visit by Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to Beirut, Tuesday

Lebanese Army Commander General Joseph Aoun appealed to world powers, during a meeting in France last month, to help the troops whose salaries have plummeted with the collapse of the Lebanese pound and the spike of inflation.

On the eve of her Saudi visit, French ambassador to Lebanon, Wednesday, sharply criticised caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab for asserting that his country is “under siege”.

Grillo said that mismanagement and the lethargy of the Lebanese leadership are the reason for the economic meltdown and that the collapse was caused by the “political class” itself.

“But what is frightening, Mr Prime Minister, is that today’s brutal collapse … is the deliberate result of mismanagement and inaction for years,” she said.

“It is not the result of an external siege. It is the result of your own responsibilities, all of you, in the political class, for years. This is reality” she added.

Despite international pressures led mainly by France, Lebanese officials are mired in sharp political disputes that have prevented the formation of a government to succeed Diab’s administration, which had resigned days after the Beirut port explosion. Meanwhile, the international community requires the formation of a government that will implement urgent reforms, in return for providing the necessary financial support to get the country out of the downward spiral of economic collapse.