All eyes on Lebanon ahead of Arab Summit


hariri-aounBy Joseph A. Kechichian

Beirut: All eyes will be on Lebanon during the Arab League summit in Aqaba Jordan this week. Its positions will be closely observed by member states, particularly Saudi Arabia which has been displeased with several statements made by pro-Iranian Lebanese politicians, including the president, Michel Aoun, as of late.

At an emergency foreign ministers meeting last year, Lebanese Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil, refused to condemn attacks on Saudi missions in Iran in early 2016, which sparked a massive diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

In response, Saudi Arabia suspended critical military aid to the Lebanese army and banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon, in a severe blow to Lebanon’s tourism industry.

Aoun, who became president in late 2016, travelled to Riyadh on his first official trip, hoping to patch things up with Lebanon’s traditional ally.

However, a planned follow-up visit by Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to Lebanon was cancelled after Aoun praised Hezbollah and backed the militia’s right to bear arms alongside the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) during an interview with Egyptian TV.

On Wednesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, met Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi in Cairo to close ranks with the most populous Sunni power in the Arab world, ahead of the summit.

Hariri will accompany Aoun during the summit, in an unprecedented move interpreted as trying to cushion any potential fallout.

Hariri, whose father Rafik Hariri was assassinated allegedly in a Syrian-Hezbollah coordinated plot in 2005, wanted to coordinate Lebanon’s positions with Egypt to avoid any potential embarrassing incidents.

On Thursday, the pro-Hezbollah daily Al Akhbar reported that Aoun was facing pressure not to repeat his past controversial positions.

It also reported that Washington was exerting intense pressure on Lebanese banks handling transactions and accounts of Hezbollah members.

Despite the pressure, Al Akhbar claimed  that Aoun would stick to his pro-Hezbollah stances during the summit, which would only prolong Lebanon’s isolation in the Arab world and worsen its economic crisis.

Hariri, who heads the Lebanese government which was formed late last year after a two-year vacuum, is looking to stem the rising tide of Iranian influence in the region and particularly in Lebanon.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is leading a government divided between politicians who both back and reject Iranian meddling.

Aoun himself was seen as Iran’s preferred choice for the presidency and has openly backed the right of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militant group to be armed, even though it is the only armed militia  group currently in Lebanon.