Lebanese officials and political leaders at the 2022 Iftar banquet of the Saudi Embassy in Lebanon, 11 April 2022. (Photo credit: unknown)
Walid al-Bukhari, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, hosted a Ramadan iftar banquet on 11 April with a number of noteworthy Lebanese and international figures just weeks before Lebanon heads into parliamentary elections.
Lebanese officials present included Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Minister of Agriculture Abbas Hajj Hassan (representing Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri), former presidents Michel Suleiman and Amin Gemayel, former prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam, Lebanese Forces (LF) head Samir Geagea, Progressive Socialist Party head Walid Jumblat, Kataeb Party head Sami Gemayel, and MP Bahia Hariri.
Foreign officials present included the ambassadors of the US, France, and the UK, as well as UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka.
This marked the first high-profile public appearance of Geagea after he was charged by a Lebanese court for his role in orchestrating the 14 October 2021 Tayouneh massacre, in which unarmed protesters belonging to the Hezbollah, Amal, and Marada movements were caught by a pre-planned ambush of snipers, who were later identified to be part of the LF.
Geagea was trained by Israel during the occupation of Lebanon. In 1994, he was convicted to 11 years solitary confinement in the Ministry of Defense after being found guilty of ordering the bomb attack on the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Zouk Mikael, which left nine people dead.
The LF has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s role in financing militant groups who persecute and kill Christians throughout West Asia.
Official cables released by Wikileaks also show that Geagea has pursued financing for his party’s activities from both the US embassy and Saudi Arabia.
Lebanese political leaders – which included two acting government officials, PM Mikati and agriculture minister Hajj Hassan – sat at the same dinner table as Geagea despite his complicity in spilling the blood of unarmed Lebanese civilians and evading arrest warrants.
This is not the first time that a sitting Lebanese prime minister has embraced political figures who are responsible for the killing of Lebanese.
During the July 2006 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, which was supported and aided by the US, then prime minister Fouad Siniora openly met with then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
A few days prior to the iftar, Al-Bukhari met with Siniora asking him to maintain his presence in the upcoming elections, following the pullout of major Sunni Muslim parties, so as not to leave the electoral arena open for Hezbollah to win.
Despite this meeting with Siniora on the file of the Lebanese elections, Al-Bukhari stated at the iftar that “Saudi Arabia’s principles do not allow it to interfere in sovereign matters. We respect the parliamentary and presidential junctures and we call on everyone to run them based on competency.”
PM Mikati did not make any remarks on the controversial presence of Geagea at the iftar. Instead, he made statements on improving bilateral relations with the kingdom.
“This is the significance of the month of Ramadan, the month of mercy and solidarity, the occasion to strengthen the bonds of amicability that bind Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.”
On the same evening, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech in which he stated there is credible intelligence suggesting the US embassy is seeking to delay the upcoming elections.
Addressing Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs, Nasrallah revealed “Riyadh spent a lot of money in Lebanon in the 2009 elections … much of that money was not spent on the elections, but was instead put into the accounts of political officials in Lebanon.”
In October 2021, Nasrallah referred to the LF as the biggest threat to Christians in Lebanon.
This banquet marks the first major event held by Al-Bukhari after returning to Lebanon on 7 April following a diplomatic spat between the two countries due to remarks made by former information minister George Kordahi criticizing the Saudi war on Yemen.
Experts agree that Kordahi’s words were likely being used by Riyadh as a pretext to implement a pre-determined policy objective, such as reducing Hezbollah’s role in the government and political scene, as a diplomatic source told The Cradle that “Saudi Arabia has long linked the Lebanese file to the Yemeni file.”
Lebanese foreign minister Abdullah Bou Habib stated that the terms of Saudi Arabia and GCC are impossible to meet.
“If they just want Hezbollah’s head on a plate, we can’t give them that,” Habib said, adding that “Hezbollah is a component of politics in Lebanon. It has a regional armed dimension, yes, but this is beyond what we can resolve.”