Turkey vies with Saudi Arabia as ‘protector of Lebanon’s Sunnis’

Observers in Lebanon pointed out the total absence of any Saudi political role in Lebanon after the Beirut explosion at a time when Turkey was quick to present itself as a political and economic actor in the country.

Ankara sought to take advantage of declining Saudi interest in Lebanon and of Iran's wariness about being conspicuously present in a setting drawing a lot of Western attention.

Observers pointed out that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted quickly to the Beirut disaster and dispatched to the Lebanese capital Turkish Vice-President Fuad Oktay as his personal emissary, accompanied by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and a number of Turkish officials, confirming Ankara’s keenness on being perceived as a major player in the Lebanese scene.

Riyadh did not hide its dissatisfaction with political developments in Lebanon, even before the explosion. It had stopped providing economic aid to the country and downgraded its diplomatic mission in Beirut.

According to senior Saudi officials, Riyadh believes that the Lebanese state has completely fallen under Hezbollah’s sway, which prevents Saudi Arabia’s presence in Lebanon, whether politically or in investment matters.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan did not hide his country's concern over Hezbollah’s hegemony in Lebanon.

“The party has precedents in the use of explosive materials in a number of Arab and European countries,” Prince Faisal said during his participation at the donors’ online summit initiated by France last Sunday.

Saudi writer Khaled al-Sulaiman encapsulated his country's stance towards Lebanon by saying that “thorny bushes should not be watered”.

“This time Saudi Arabia has had a different position, an open and transparent position for Lebanon and for the international community: Saudi Arabia will not continue to pay Hezbollah’s bills, and the Lebanese have to assume their responsibilities towards their country, and the international community must assume its responsibilities towards Hezbollah’s mischief internally and regionally,” he wrote in an article in the Saudi daily Okaz.

However, Riyadh’s choice to withdraw from Lebanon because of its opposition to Hezbollah opens the door to Turkey’s expanding role in the country, as Ankara seeks to position itself as the “protector of the Sunnis”.

A Lebanese observer close to Riyadh said that “Saudi humanitarian aid came generously, but politics was absent.”

Political sources monitoring Turkish moves in Lebanon think that Ankara is seeking at the present time to fill the Arab void in the country in light of the deep crisis afflicting Hezbollah as an arm of Iran.

These sources confirmed that Turkey has a certain presence in Lebanon, but fails to realise that this presence does not mean that the Sunnis are loyal to it.

A prominent Lebanese politician described Turkish presence in Lebanon as rather sizeable and important in light of the presence of a number of charities supported by Ankara, especially in Tripoli, the capital of northern Lebanon.

Prior to the deadly blast at Beirut port, there had been a political debate between two Sunni political figures over who is loyal to Saudi Arabia and who is loyal to Turkey in Lebanon.

Asas Media, a website administered by former interior minister close to Saudi Arabia, Nihad al-Machnouk, has accused former Lebanese security director and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi of working with Turkish intelligence to take control of northern Lebanon.

Rifi responded violently to Machnouk, describing him as someone who kept moving “from an intrigue to the other, and only the employer changes”.

Machnouk and Rifi at some point competed for Saudi attention when the Saudi fortunes of the former Lebanese prime minister and head of the Future Bloc Saad Hariri declined.

Sunni politicians believe that Turkey is seeking to achieve wide encroachment into Lebanon and to “represent the Sunni community” by sponsoring several Islamic societies and investing in the restoration of old buildings, with a special focus on those reminiscent of the Ottoman era.

A Lebanese politician, queried by The Arab Weekly on Ankara’s growing role in Lebanon, stressed the need to “distinguish between the appreciation that the Lebanese Sunnis, especially in Tripoli, hold for Turkey and being loyal to it,” noting that Lebanon’s Sunnis generally sympathise with anyone opposing the Assad regime in Syria.

He explained that the Sunnis in general are allergic to anyone who deals with Syrian President Bashar Assad in light of their bitter experience with the Syrian regime, due to its sectarian (Alawite) nature. This sectarian nature appeared specifically in Tripoli, where the Alawites, during the period of the Syrian tutelage over Lebanon up to 2005, turned into something like masters of the city, despite the fact that they formed only a small minority in it.

Political sources indicated that the Turkish vice president's visit to Beirut immediately after the departure of French President Emmanuel Macron was a clear attempt to find a balance with France and present Turkey as a protector of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, just like France’s role as protector of the Lebanese Christians.

Furthermore, Turkey did not waste the economic opportunity represented by the port of Beirut being out of commission. Oktay was quick to suggest the port of Mersin in southern Turkey as an alternative to the port of Beirut.

Oktay stressed that “Turkey will go with Lebanon to the end.” He pointed out that his visit to Lebanon should be taken as “blank check” for “various types of assistance to the brotherly Lebanese people.”

A political observer told The Arab Weekly that Oktay’s words “caused discontent in many circles, including the Sunni community, which has a vested interest in saving Beirut’s port and fixing it as quickly as possible. (Oktay’s statements) revealed Turkish opportunism”.

Still, the fact remains that the new map of large ports in the eastern Mediterranean reveals the size of the opportunity Ankara sees to control trade with Lebanon.

With the Beirut seaport out of service and the limited capacity of the port of Tripoli for receiving large container ships makes Mersin port one of the main candidates as a handling port, especially with the international ban on Syrian ports, and the impossibility of access to alternative Israeli ports.

This article was republished with permission from the Arab Weekly.

https://thearabweekly.com/turkey-vies-saudi-arabia-protector-lebanons-sunnis