Jean-Yves le Drian stepped off the plane at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport in his first visit to Lebanon, not as France’s foreign minister, but as its personal envoy to the Mediterranean country.
His mission? To help find an end to the deadlock plaguing Lebanon’s politics and support the country in finally electing a president. As he departed the airport, it had been 232 days since the last president, Michel Aoun, left office.
Le Drian’s visit comes after French President Emmanuel Macron met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, in Paris over the weekend.
While the two leaders spoke about many other issues relating to their mutual interests, Lebanon was also a topic of conversation, although the details of which have not been made public. Both bin Salman and Macron urged, like so many others before them, for the political stalemate to come to an end and a president to be elected quickly.
Outside of this, however, the Saudis, for the most part, have not expressed much interest in getting directly involved in Lebanon’s affairs.
“The Saudis probably reiterated in the Paris meeting that Lebanon is not a top priority for them and that they are willing to follow the French lead and to be supportive of the French initiative to see a president elected in Lebanon,” Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told NOW.
A passive approach
Historically, Saudi Arabia has been one of the leading patrons in Lebanon – acting as sort of a counter to Iran and Hezbollah.
This role, however, has increasingly diminished over the years as traditional opponents of Hezbollah lost political power, allowing for Hezbollah to become a dominating force in the country.
This culminated in Saudi Arabia cutting off diplomatic relations with Lebanon in October 2021, until the kingdom announced that it was restoring ties in March of the following year.
Since the restoration of ties, however, Saudi Arabia has stopped trying to have a large and active role in Lebanon in what Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Institute in Beirut, described as a new passive strategy.
“What has happened is that the Saudis are not willing to get caught up in any initiative today,” he told NOW. “What they’re basically doing is playing a passive game. What they’re saying is ‘You manage and then you come to us.'”
In doing this, the Saudis, which have been trying to focus more on domestic issues, are trying to limit the amount of effort they put into managing Lebanon’s politics and are only planning on engaging when they feel like the Lebanese are putting forward a serious proposal that they can work with.
[For Hezbollah] the only way out of this situation for Lebanon is ultimately to be reembraced by the Arab world or to have some kind of good relations with the Arab world so that they can help Lebanon financially so that Lebanon doesn’t have to go to the Western countries and the IMF.
This new approach has become increasingly evident as, after Parliament has failed 12 times to elect a president, the Saudis have still made no indication that they want to get involved.
However, the Kingdom’s new passive approach to Lebanese politics does not mean that politicians and political parties are not aware that any future president should still at least have Saudi Arabia’s tacit approval.
Even Hezbollah, a staunch enemy of the Saudis, is aware of this, with Young saying that the Shiite party has sent indirect messages to the Saudis that there is a deal to be made.
This is likely because, given Lebanon’s dire economic situation, there needs to be some kind of agreement that allows for Lebanon to be “reembraced” by the Arab world once more, with the recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement making this a much more lucrative idea.
“[For Hezbollah] the only way out of this situation for Lebanon is ultimately to be reembraced by the Arab world or to have some kind of good relations with the Arab world so that they can help Lebanon financially so that Lebanon doesn’t have to go to the Western countries and the IMF,” Young explained. “With the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this suddenly becomes more attractive to Hezbollah in the same way that Syria had to reconcile with the Arab states, Lebanon should follow a similar path.”
While Saudi Arabia has no plans of playing the mediator for Lebanon’s political parties, France has been more than happy to oblige – working from nearly the start of the elections to help the two sides reach an agreement.
Finding a consensus
By the end of the 12th special electoral session in Parliament on June 14, several things became clear.
The first was that there are two main candidates for president: Jihad Azour, who is backed by the opposition along with the Free Patriotic Movement, a years-long ally of Hezbollah who seemingly broke with the party after their alliance soured in the last year, and Sleiman Frangieh who is backed by Hezbollah and its allies.
The second thing was that while nearly all of the opposition voted for Azour, there is disagreement among the “change” MPs, with several of them instead choosing to vote for former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud.
Thirdly, according to Maksad, this vote showed that Hezbollah, whose support is still required to elect a president, cannot simply force their preferred candidate onto Parliament.
“What Sleiman Frangieh’s candidacy showed is that Hezbollah is in no position to dictate who is going to be president of Lebanon,” he explained.
But, “Hezbollah, Amal, and their allies can block the vote, can veto, can continue to obstruct the election of a president of Lebanon in the hope of having a meaningful say and making sure that no president that is averse to their interests is elected.”
And, lastly, neither side is currently willing to stop supporting their respective candidates.
This is where France and Le Drian come in. While most of the international community has mostly tried to wash its hands of Lebanon, France has made an effort to play an active role in helping solve the various crises that Lebanon is facing.
Outside of having a historical interest in Lebanon, France also views the country as its gateway to playing a role in the Middle East. Other interests include, according to Imad Salamy, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, French company Total Energy’s involvement in the offshore search for natural gas in Lebanon’s potentially lucrative waters.
“The French want the country to be as stable as soon as possible and, for that matter, are willing to jeopardize many political principles and make serious concessions – particularly towards Hezbollah,” Salamy told NOW.
These concessions include publicly backing Frangieh’s candidacy for several months in a proposal that sought to bring the two sides together where Frangieh ascended to the presidency while Nawaf Salam, a judge with the International Court of Justice who is viewed as being close with the West, would become the prime minister.
Le Drian is coming to Lebanon, first of all, to scan the political scene in the country and to get some kind of feeling for how serious is Jihad Azour as a candidate and how much backing would Hezbollah and allies of Hezbollah accept such a nominee and at what cost if that was to be pursued. Le Drian may also be also considering other candidates in case there needs to be some consensus on an alternative third candidate whether that is to be Joseph Aoun or Ziyad Baroud.
This proposal was swiftly rejected by most in Lebanon.
“Now they are in a difficult position to maintain that support given the fact that Jihad Azour has pretty much mobilized all of the Christian votes behind him,” Salamy added. “The French are no longer in an easy position to back Sleiman Frangieh any longer.”
Practically since Azour’s candidacy, France has not brought up the Frangieh-Salam proposal and has, instead, looked to alter its position by naming Le Drian as the envoy to Lebanon.
Le Drian’s first visit to Lebanon in his newfound position is not expected to immediately bring about any changes, though, with Maksad, Salamy, and Young all agreeing that this first visit has more to do with the envoy getting a scope of the situation in Lebanon, the positions of the two sides and taking a look at potential candidates.
“Le Drian is coming to Lebanon, first of all, to scan the political scene in the country and to get some kind of feeling for how serious is Jihad Azour as a candidate and how much backing would Hezbollah and allies of Hezbollah accept such a nominee and at what cost if that was to be pursued,” Salamy stated. “Le Drian may also be also considering other candidates in case there needs to be some consensus on an alternative third candidate whether that is to be Joseph Aoun or Ziyad Baroud.”
There is also the question of whether or not the presidency will be viewed as an individual issue or if all of the parties involved will look to make a “package deal” that also includes issues like the premiership, policy, and the heads of the Central Bank and the army.
For Salamy, it is nearly impossible to imagine an agreement only being made to elect a president while there are so many other issues in the near future that would also be subject to the political deadlock that Lebanon is prone to.
“Any choice of the president has to come within a package deal that receives the consent and support of each of the political parties in the country. Otherwise, it will be really difficult to foresee the election of a president in isolation,” he said.
Maksad, though, is not entirely convinced that a package deal is necessarily on the table yet when it comes to the international community.
The Quint Group, consisting of France, Germany, the US, UK, and Italy, is set to meet soon in Qatar and, while the group of five is more than happy to let France take the lead on the Lebanon file, Maksad says that, so far, they do not seem ready to bring everyone together to try and strike such a large deal.
“Amongst the various players in the Quint Group, they hadn’t gotten to the place where essentially, they were willing to underwrite a Doha II,” Maksad stated.
On Friday, June 23, another group of five countries – this time Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt, Qatar and the US – are set to meet in Beirut in a gathering headed by Le Drian.
Still, the situation in Lebanon remains fluid, with neither candidate nor potential candidate able to be counted out quite yet, especially when it comes to Lebanon’s closed-door political deals.
“It’s a package deal that they have to deal with,” Young explained. “So it’s conceivable that if you give up something in the package deal, you can get something in exchange. If the Christians get something in the package deal, then, maybe in exchange they will end up endorsing Frangieh.”
It is not yet known how long Le Drian will stay in Lebanon for his first visit, but many hope that it will mark a turning point where progress is finally made in bringing about the end to one of Lebanon’s many crises.