BEIRUT, LEBANON — Saudi Arabia is playing a more assertive diplomatic role in Lebanon, attempting to bridge rising tension between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites while curbing Iran's influence in the tiny Mediterranean country, analysts say.
Wary of its own restless Shiite population, Riyadh is deeply concerned at what it sees as a determined drive by Shiite Iran to expand its influence into the mainly Sunni Middle East.
"The Saudis are fighting Iran in Lebanon now because if they don't, they will be fighting them in their own land," says Sarkis Naoum, a Lebanese political commentator.
The stepped-up diplomacy by the Saudis over the past six months led to an unprecedented meeting in Riyadh on Dec. 26 between Saudi King Abdullah and two senior officials of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hizbullah.
Just six months ago an encounter between a Saudi monarch and the Shiite militants would have been almost unthinkable. When Hizbullah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July, triggering a month-long war with Israel, the Saudis delivered an unusually frank statement, blaming Hizbullah and Iran for "uncalculated adventures."
Hizbullah's stubborn resistance against Israeli however, won it many admirers across the Arab world, making the Saudi leadership look out of step. But Hizbullah's regional popularity has dropped since it switched its attention from confronting Israel to seeking to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Many Sunnis who cheered on Hizbullah last summer now regard it as an agent of "Persian" Iran.
"Hizbullah knows that when it comes to Israel and the US – the common enemies – there is common ground between Sunni Salafis and Shiites. But when it comes to domestic politics and political power in these countries, there's much more fear and wariness by Sunnis," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Saudi Arabia traditionally adopts a nonconfrontational approach to regional diplomacy, using its massive oil wealth to buy stability and preserve the status quo. Some Lebanese say that the situation in Lebanon could have been resolved sooner if the Saudis had displayed a more aggressive diplomacy.
"They always thought they could stay away from danger by bribing people, giving money to leaders and states so long as they don't interfere in their own affairs," Mr. Naoum says. "Some of them are seeing now that this policy is not good for their country."
The Saudis stepped up their involvement in Lebanese affairs in August in angry reaction to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who caustically described in a speech some Arab leaders as "half men" for secretly hoping that Israel would smash Hizbullah.
"The Saudis started playing a serious role in Lebanon after Assad's 'half-men speech,' " says Mohammed Mashnouq, a Lebanese political analyst and former adviser to Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who was assassinated two years ago. Mr Hariri's son, Saad, heads the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Lebanon and enjoys close ties to the Saudi leadership.
"We were always asking for [Saudi] help [to confront Iran in Lebanon]," Mr. Mashnouq says. "Not just military and financial help, but religious help too."
Still, both the Saudis and Hizbullah have good reason to sit down together. Riyadh is worried that Iran could stir up the kingdom's own Shiite minority, long feared as potential fifth columnists by Saudi leaders. Saudi Shiites represent 10 to 15 percent of the population and live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, adjacent to Kuwait and Bahrain, which both have sizable Shiite populations. Talking to the Iran-backed Hizbullah could help ease tensions in Lebanon, while also representing a potential back-door channel to Tehran.
In another sign that Saudi is taking on a larger regional role, Abdullah met with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani over the weekend. Mr. Larijani delivered a letter to the monarch in which the Islamic Republic asked for help in easing tension between it and the US over Tehran's nuclear program.
Reuters reported yesterday that a Saudi official said Iran would like Saudi Arabia to "help bring opinions together" between Iran and the US, the official said, but gave no more details.
For Hizbullah's part, it has domestic and regional motivations for engaging with the Saudis. The Hizbullah-led opposition had gambled on the shock tactics of mass rallies and a sit-in in central Beirut in December bringing the government swiftly to its knees. But the government dug in its heels, creating a stalemate that has lasted six weeks.
The opposition has pledged further demonstrations around the country, but the campaign appears to be running out of steam, analysts say, with Hizbullah perhaps more willing to find an acceptable compromise.
Lebanon's As Safir newspaper reported Monday that Saudi Arabia is working on a new initiative to break the six-week impasse between the Siniora government and the Lebanese opposition. The new proposal, which the Saudi ambassador relayed to Hizbullah officials over the weekend, "set clear solutions to the current crisis," As Safir reported.
Crucially, the political deadlock has worsened Shiite-Sunni tensions in Lebanon. Hizbullah has long spoken out against intra-Muslim discord, believing that it distracts from the more important goal of confronting Israel.
"Hizbullah was playing two roles in meeting the Saudis," says Mr. Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment. "It was serving a domestic agenda, but also having a positive impact on the wider strategic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia."