During the two-year tenure of Najib Mikati’s government, Saudi Arabia, to some extent, kept its distance from Lebanese affairs. Yet one question remained largely unanswered: Did Mikati take office with a green light from Saudi?
Throughout the lifespan of the previous Lebanese government, all attempts by Sunni Lebanese leaders to get answers failed miserably. Today, as the country searches for a new government to replace Mikati’s outgoing cabinet, Lebanon is once again a hot topic in Saudi Arabia’s corridors of power.
Despite all the reported affirmations that Saudi will let Future head Saad Hariri name a candidate for the post, Arab and Lebanese sources say that Riyadh has a special agenda.
As part of that agenda, Saudi has resolved to make a comeback in Lebanon, in accordance with a formula that mimics the former role of Syria. In other words, the kingdom would not act as a party to the internal conflict, but rather as a “referee,” managing and helping resolve crises among Lebanese factions.
According to the sources, it is possible that in the coming days Lebanese figures from different sects will visit Saudi to discuss solutions to the present crisis. The same sources maintain that though it was Riyadh – in addition to Washington – that instructed Mikati to resign, Saudi Arabia is in favor of him returning to preside over the future government. The goal, the sources claim, is to form another government led by Mikati, but under a different set of alliances and conditions.
In short, Riyadh wants Mikati to return to lead a government not dominated by the March 8 coalition, especially with the Free Patriotic Movement controlling the lion’s share of cabinet portfolios. From the Saudi point of view, Mikati would help safeguard the moderate-centrist ground in the political spectrum.
Designating Mikati to form a cabinet again would also alleviate the March 8 and 14 polarization. This would produce a “moderate” and religiously diverse bloc, bridging the gap between Hezbollah and the Future Movement – the source of most Sunni-Shia tension.
To successfully see its bid through, Riyadh is betting, among other things, on President Michel Suleiman adopting a strong stance in favor of its scheme. Furthermore, Riyadh is acting based on the assumption that Hezbollah wishes to defuse Sunni-Shia tension.
While leaving the door open to discussions, Saudi prefers to see Mikati form a government that is neutral in appearance. In this vein, Suleiman reportedly intends to stand his ground on several issues, like holding the 2013 general election within the constitutional deadlines.
Behind closed doors, Suleiman shares Riyadh’s view that Mikati is the best choice for prime minister, as he has shown an ability to manage the political game despite its complexities.
Another item on the Saudi agenda, which also happens to be Mikati’s signature stroke, is the dissociation policy over the conflict in Syria. The policy remains desirable internationally, despite recent reservations.
More than ever, Riyadh is enthusiastic about Lebanon’s dissociation approach. For one thing, Saudi is rumored to be planning a gradual withdrawal from the quagmire in Syria. The same sources reckon that Damascus is aware of this recent shift in Saudi attitudes, but that it remains cautious.
It is worth noting that Riyadh, throughout the previous phase, had postponed tackling the situation in Lebanon, waiting instead for the dust to settle in Damascus. But the sources believe that Saudi has finally decided to stop putting its Lebanon policy on hold.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.