Historic visit by Lebanese patriarch to visit Hariri in Saudi Arabia
Lebanese Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi became the first Catholic cardinal ever to visit Saudi Arabia as the crisis in the Middle East worsens.
Al-Rahi arrived in Riyadh on Tuesday at the invitation of King Salman. The patriarch met with former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, who resigned on November 3 and has remained in Saudi Arabia since. Al-Rahi had a sit-down with Salman as well.
The patriarch, who was flown alongside his accompanying delegation, on a private plane, was greeted upon his arrival by Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs, Thamer Al Sabhan, Lebanon's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdel Sattar Eisa, and Saudi and Lebanese dignitaries, reports from both countries said.
Al-Rahi also met on Tuesday with Saad Al-Hariri, who announced his resignation as Lebanon's prime minister from Riyadh on Nov. 4, according to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.
Hariri abruptly announced his resignation in a television broadcast, saying he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accusing Saudi Arabia's arch-foe Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
Patriarch Beshara Al-Rai is making an historic first visit to Saudi Arabia.
The head of the Maronite Church was scheduled to hold talks with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Rahi will leave Riyadh on Tuesday evening heading to Rome where he will partake in a number of ecclesiastical meetings, the Lebanese news agency said.
"Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are deep-rooted and I thank King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad for their gracious treatment of the Lebanese community. I have always been longing to visit Saudi Arabia," he said, as he met members of the Lebanese expatriate community at the Lebanese embassy's headquarters in Riyadh a short time after his arrival.
The patriarch is one of the most respected leaders in Lebanon. Even most Muslims acknowledge his influence. His visit could well be considered a "wellness check" on Hariri, who is reported to be under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Lebanon's factions are in an uproar over Hariri's status in Saudi Arabia, and the patriarch may have gone to visit the kingdom in order to report back about the former prime minister's freedom of movement and whether he will return to Lebanon.
Al-Rahi's announced intention to go to Rome immediately following his visit to Saudi Arabia may not be a coincidence. It may signal that Pope Francis is prepared to get involved in the Lebanon crisis in a personal way.
But what does it say about Salman's invitation to a Catholic cardinal to visit the kingdom for the first time in Saudi history? It may be as simple as the patriarch asking to be invited so he could look in on Hariri and calm the fears of many Lebanese about his status. Or it could be part of the continuing process begun by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to open Saudi Arabia, and by extension Islam itself, to his reformist ideas.
MBS may not have the crown, but it appears that the king has given him enormous power and leeway to effect change. His reform efforts so far have been tiny steps forward. But to the radicals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, any deviation from their interpretation of Islam is blasphemy. This has placed MBS's life in danger. He will be a target for assassination for as long as he lives.
Saudi reform moves are not taking place in a vacuum. They have been forced upon the kingdom by the growth in Iranian power and influence in the region.
"We are in a real epochal moment," said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, in a phone conference organized by the Wilson Center in Washington. After centuries of Ottoman rule, an Arab order that emerged from the ashes of empire has seemingly collapsed. Iran has "consolidated its control of the entire Levant," Salem said, while other major Sunni Muslim states such as Turkey and Egypt are "non-players," beset by their own political dysfunctions. Into the breach step the Saudis – with a strikingly activist agenda.
"We are in a new Middle East, where we'll see a series of confrontations and wars," Salem said.
Two years ago, Iran was more or less contained. The Iranians' nuclear ambitions could have been dealt with if there had been the will to do so in Washington. Otherwise, they were in a box thanks to sanctions and frozen assets that made it difficult for them to project their power beyond the borders of their own country.
But the greed of Europeans who saw a huge new market in Iran for their businesses, and Obama's maniacal desire to "make history" by concluding an agreement with the Islamic Republic, have now let loose the furies of war as Iran meddles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. And with Egypt and Turkey on the sidelines, largely unable to act because of domestic problems, the Saudis have become the de facto head of a coalition of Sunni states confronting the existential threat of Iranian dominance.