Lebanese President Michel Aoun headed to Saudi Arabia on January 9 for his first official trip, before going to Qatar. His next official visit is expected to be to Egypt.
Relations between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt are volatile and their strategic interests in the region appear to be divergent. Al Saud, Al Thani and President Abdel-Fattah Sisi are pursuing different if not opposite goals in the Levant and in Lebanon. How can Aoun manage relations between Lebanon and each one of those key Arab partners, especially in light of internal Lebanese divisions and divergent views regarding Lebanon’s relations with these countries?
Doha appears to be willing to make a come-back without apparent conditions and with its own agenda regarding regional issues: Hamas (Palestinians), Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood, Syria.
Cairo sees itself as the pillar of the Arab World, even if Egypt has lost much of its influence and power. Sisi does not want to be sidelined from the Levant anymore. Egypt might attempt to become more involved, as part of a broader, more confident approach to Arab World affairs.
Though it did show a certain willingness to open a new era in its relations with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia still appears to be reluctant. This contradiction makes it even harder for President Aoun to accompany the announced return of Saudis to Lebanon. There is a need to restore confidence between the two countries: a sort of a new deal might be needed, though it seems impossible to achieve at this stage. The Saudis are aware of the new strategic balance in the Levant and in Lebanon and they can’t but admit the dominant position of their Iranian rivals and their local allies. They seem to be willing to look past that, in a bid to preserve what is left of their influence in Lebanon. But they need a minimum of commitment from the opposite side, and from the President of the Republic. They think they can ask for guaranties from the President and even put conditions for their return. Among these, the Saudis are expecting the Lebanese to halt the media campaign against Al Saud and the Kingdom. It is not sure Aoun, or the Hariri government, are able to offer the Saudis such guarantees.
At this stage, Hezbollah enjoys a dominant position in Lebanon… Although it is willing to associate other parties, it does so from a position of strength. In this note, reserved for its clients, MESP sheds light on the pressure put by Hezbollah on the President and the Government to control any dialogue with the Saudis, if it is perceived as threatening Iranian interests in Lebanon. We illustrate this newly established approach to oppose any normalization between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia for the time being, by providing a few examples. Among these, the case of Yaacoub Sarraf, current Minister of Defense and one of the closest allies to the Hezbollah-Assad axis, who has been asked to moderate his overzealous normalization efforts; the donation to the LAF which has been counterbalanced by Iranian and Russian proposals; the attacks against the Saud following the execution by Bahraini authorities of three Shia militants, etc.