Winter at Tantora, but a spring for Saudi cultural diplomacy

Winter at Tantora, but a spring for Saudi cultural diplomacy

A year ago, Saudi-Lebanese ties were going through one of the toughest periods in the history of relations between the two countries. The debacle around the circumstances of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation in Riyadh had fueled doubts about the Kingdom’s intentions for Lebanon.

It appeared to most analysts that two conflicting groups — hawks and doves — were offering advice and attempting to influence the royal court. 

Hawks argued for a high-risk/high-reward strategy; they wanted a complete transformation, possibly with new faces to represent Saudi interests, and threatened complete disengagement otherwise. Doves, while acknowledging the increasing influence of Hezbollah as the war in Syria tilted in the Assad regime’s favor, completely disagreed. They preferred an “if we can’t completely fix it, let’s not risk completely breaking it” approach. 

Hawks were proved wrong. Their disengagement approach backfired and the Hariri debacle strengthened foes, weakened friends and pushed away those who were on the fence. 

While Iranian agents dig tunnels to wage wars, Saudi Arabia builds bridges of culture.​

Faisal J. Abbas

However, in the past 12 months I believe we have seen a shift in the Saudi approach. Doves such as Royal Court adviser Nizar Al-Alola and Ambassador Walid Bukhari worked tirelessly to implement new instructions relating to Lebanon. 

Of course, Saudi Arabia had to move quickly, because every day lost was a day won by regional rivals who were — for the first time — beginning to appeal to some of Lebanon’s Sunni population. 

Worries increased again when President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, just as several Arab countries re-opened their embassies in Damascus. 

Yet losing Syria should not mean losing Lebanon as well; if anything was learned from Saudi Arabia’s ill-advised disengagement from Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, it was that this “all or nothing” approach doesn’t work. Indeed, over the past two years, Riyadh and Baghdad have enjoyed a rapprochement that included the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr visiting the Kingdom for the first time. 

I believe the same, if not more, is in the pipeline for Lebanon. We have just seen a pledge by Ambassador Bukhari to consider withdrawing the travel warning to Saudi citizens as soon as a government is formed in Lebanon. This will give Lebanese tourism a welcome boost. 

There are also unconfirmed reports of further support that could be considered when a government is formed — perhaps the formation of a strategic council, probably led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman himself. Riyadh could also support the Lebanese central bank with a much-needed deposit or loan. 

Lebanon, in return, has much to offer Saudi Arabia and its reform program, but for now I believe the most important aim for Riyadh and all Arab friends of Lebanon is to restore stability to the Switzerland of the Middle East. 

We should remind the Lebanese that Saudi support means hope, prosperity and diversity for all of Lebanon — just as it was under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. What a contrast that would be with Iran, which through its Hezbollah agents has hijacked the country, manipulated its demographics and waged proxy wars on behalf of Tehran. 

Indeed, while Iranian agents dig tunnels to wage such wars, Saudi Arabia builds bridges of culture. This was illustrated when nearly 100 Lebanese visitors descended on Al-Ula for the Winter at Tantora festival, at which the Lebanese soprano Majida El Roumi performed in the Kingdom for the first time. 

Among those who attended were former presidents and prime ministers, officials, members of the Hariri family, representatives of all sects (including Shiites), beauty queens, singers and prominent journalists and intellectuals, all guests of the Kingdom’s recently appointed Minister of Culture, Prince Badr Al-Farhan. 

This was cultural diplomacy at its best — not only were last year’s mishaps forgotten, but between the superb Saudi scenery and Majida’s magical voice, both Saudi and Lebanese guests witnessed at first hand how beautiful it is when two cultures come together.

• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News

Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view