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Tammam Salam discusses Lebanon's ties with Saudi Arabia ahead of a high-level visit to Riyadh
Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam has cautioned that now is not the time for political bickering among his country’s parties and that consensus is desperately needed to steer Lebanon away from crisis.
The small Mediterranean republic has been without a president for more than a year as its many factions fail to agree on a consensus figure for the position.
The Lebanese prime minister spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat ahead of an important visit to Saudi Arabia. Salam stressed the importance of relations between Beirut and Riyadh, calling for even greater cooperation between the two countries in a number of fields, particularly security and military.
The Lebanese prime minister is visiting Saudi Arabia accompanied by Interior Minister Nihad Mashnouq, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour and Youth and Sports Minister Abdul-Muttaleb Al-Hinawi.
Salam was received by Saudi officials on Tuesday in Riyadh and is expected to meet Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz on Wednesday morning.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What can you tell us about your forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia?
Tammam Salam: This is a normal visit and confirms the constant communication between Lebanon and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the historic and close relationship between our two countries. It would be correct to say that there is constant and ongoing monitoring and follow-up, particularly in light of Saudi Arabia’s care and commitment towards Lebanon and many of our ongoing issues. Therefore, the people of Lebanon are grateful for the efforts of Saudi Arabia. So the visit will not just aim to strengthen Saudi-Lebanese relations, but to explore everything that can be done to strengthen this relationship further and ensure the benefit and interest of both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
Q: This visit comes at a critical time in the Middle East, with conflict raging in a number of countries, not least Syria and Yemen. What is your view of the situation in the region?
There can be no doubt that the situation in the region is a subject of major concern, particularly regarding issues such as security, stability and counter-terrorism. Saudi Arabia is leading a clear and unambiguous war against terrorism and the harm it does our religion, nations and region. Therefore, we must support this process because the Arab world has its position and future and this is something that we must strengthen and support. This is something that we can do by putting forward a clear vision in coordination with all Arab states via the Arab League, as well as through bilateral relations.
The Arab people want to ensure their dignity and continuity. At the same time, they want to live in peace, stability and tranquility. Therefore, we need to see agreements between Arab states today to ensure this.
Q: Speaking of joint Arab efforts to ensure regional security and stability, the Arab League is moving forward on an initiative to launch a joint Arab military force. What is Beirut’s position on this?
This is still under discussion by Lebanon’s military leadership. The military leadership has already held two meetings to discuss this while a third meeting is scheduled to take place in the next ten days to clarify and agree on a draft formula for this force and a number of issues regarding how it will be formed and defining its role. All of this is still under discussion. This initiative was put forward at the most recent Arab League summit and we must give it the required attention to strengthen the role of joint Arab security during this unstable time.
Q: What can you tell us about some Lebanese parties, such as Hezbollah for example, seeking to cast doubt on Saudi-Lebanese ties?
Lebanon, as you know, is a democratic state and every political party is free to express its opinions and views on domestic, regional and international issues. However, let me confirm once again, and despite what you might have heard from some parties, that Lebanon enjoys a deep and close relationship with Saudi Arabia. What I would like to express to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at this point is clear: We thank King Salman Bin Abdulaziz for his support of Lebanon and the Lebanese people. The Kingdom has always been committed to providing Lebanon with unprecedented moral and material support, and we can add military support, to strengthen its legitimate bodies and our nation’s sovereignty.
Q: Regarding Saudi military support for Lebanon and its military, have you now begun to feel the effect of this on the ground?
Yes, the Saudi military assistance is coming at just the right time and the Lebanese military and security apparatus are in dire need of this, particularly in light of the ongoing situation on the ground that we are facing in terms of the presence of terrorism and terrorists. This is also helping to strengthen Lebanon’s national institutions, which is having a direct effect on domestic unity.
Q: It has been more than a year since former president Michel Suleiman left office. Although your government continues to operate, a number of state institutions have reached breaking point. Is your government under threat of implosion?
Lebanon is immune [from any such implosion] due to our commitment to the policy of consensus between all people and parties and which can be seen in the compromise agreements that political parties have taken during this difficult time. We will ensure Lebanese unity by continuing to pursue this policy and remaining committed to our institutions and legitimacy as guaranteed by the constitution. So long as we remain committed to national unity and can move beyond our differences, we will ensure that Lebanon is protected and safe.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that we are in the midst of a political crisis that is worsening the longer we are unable to elect a new president and this presidential vacuum continues. This, in turn, leads to a semi-suspended legislature which, of course, affects the executive branch of power. If this continues, this will play an increasingly negative effect that will not assist efforts to preserve Lebanon’s internal unity in the face of the threats against it.
Q: Do you fear for the future of the Lebanese government?
I fear for Lebanon and everything inside it. The awareness and understanding [of the government] is at stake. As everybody knows, there is a political conflict taking place that includes certain names and parties which, I believe, is far removed from the implementation of the policy of consensus that is needed today. There is no room today for political bickering and conflict, for one party to score points at the expense of the other . . . Instead what is required today is to hold firm to the policy of consensus which enabled the formation of a government 18 months ago, and which should enable the election of a new president. This consensus, at this difficult time, is the only way out of the political crisis that we find ourselves in.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.