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Lebanon's Hariri says relationship with Saudi Arabia 'couldn't be better'

Speaking in London, Lebanese premier also discusses Israel border tunnels and his country's precarious economy and political positions
'My relationship with Saudi Arabia is a good relationship,' Hariri told crowd in London (AFP)

LONDON- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said at a news conference in London on Thursday that his relationship with Saudi Arabia “couldn’t be better" as he touted his caretaker government’s efforts to pull Lebanon out of an economic crisis.

Speaking at an event at Chatham House, the premier was elusive when asked about his complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia - a long-time ally of his Future Movement party.

Still, Hariri highlighted the importance of the Gulf kingdom’s financial support for Lebanon and described his ties to Riyadh as "a good relationship".

“My relationship with Saudi Arabia is a good relationship. I think that the Saudi market is a good market for Lebanon," said Hariri.

He spoke on the heels of the Lebanon Business and Investment Forum in London, during which he aimed to secure investments for his cash-strapped country.

"We’ve prepared many agreements that we will be signing with Saudi Arabia as soon as we form a government, and as soon as we form the government we will see Saudi Arabia taking some serious steps towards helping Lebanon economically," he said.

“So I think the relationship couldn’t be better.”

Support for Riyadh despite Khashoggi killing

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has faced heightened international scrutiny over his suspected involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Despite the killing, Hariri has maintained his support for the Saudi government, which after initially denying that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, has since detained 18 Saudis accused of being involved in the murder and recommended the death penalty for five of them.

Still, Saudi Arabia has maintained that MBS - as the crown prince is known - is innocent.

“On the issue of Khashoggi, I condemn it and the Saudi government condemns it and the whole world condemns it,” Hariri said on Thursday. “The Saudi government has arrested those people; they’ve done what they should have done. From day one I think this matter was really handled poorly, but I think now it’s taking its course to justice.”

Hariri then went on to stress the importance of Saudi funding to the Lebanese economy. In April, Saudi Arabia renewed its pledge of a $1bn credit line to Beirut during the CEDRE conference in Paris to secure funds for Lebanon.

My relationship with Saudi Arabia is a good relationship

- Saad Hariri

MBS is also believed to have held Hariri hostage for two weeks in November 2017 and pressured him to resign over the Lebanese prime minister’s perceived failure to rein in the Hezbollah movement. Upon leaving Saudi Arabia following French intervention, Hariri rescinded his resignation.

Hariri has since returned to Saudi Arabia and has been seen in public with MBS, who even joked about his alleged abduction of Hariri during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum in October.

When asked on Thursday about what happened to him, Hariri remained vague: “I’ve answered this many times. There had to be a wake-up call to the Lebanese because we were shooting ourselves in the foot. People needed to understand that we cannot continue to tell the Gulf to come to Lebanon and at the same time there are political parties cursing the hell out of the Gulf,” he said.

“I myself should not make statements about Iran and at the same time expect Iran not to answer. We need to disassociate ourselves, we need to move away from the regional conflicts... The big countries can afford it - we [Lebanon] cannot.”

A country in crisis

Lebanon holds the dubious title of having one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, currently standing at 150 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also reportedly estimated that debt repayment could constitute as much as 60 percent of the Lebanese state budget by 2021.

We need to disassociate ourselves, we need to move away from the regional conflicts...The big countries can afford it - we [Lebanon] cannot

- Saad Hariri

Hariri touted the number of projects funded during the CEDRE conference, adding that a number of reforms had been passed to facilitate the growth of the country's economy - which has stood at a near standstill for years.

“Everybody realises in Lebanon that we cannot sustain our economy, we cannot sustain the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, if we do not create jobs,” Hariri said. “Lebanon has to change. It cannot work like it used to work 10 years ago.”

Hariri repeatedly referred to the impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon's infrastructure - despite the fact that electricity shortages, troubled public services and a rubbish crisis all began before the Syrian conflict.

Hariri did acknowledge that political divisions inside Lebanon created problems after his father's death, with the parties split between the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition and the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance.

“Let me tell you - we didn’t do a good job between 2005 and 2016. We did exactly the opposite of what should have been done. We should have sat down and talked to each other regardless of our differences," he said. "But now I think we know what we’re doing. We know how to move forward; we have a plan.”

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It was only in 2016 that a unity government was formed under Hariri. The fragile balance of power was further strained in May after the first general elections in the country in nine years, as Hariri has struggled to bring about a consensus on the composition of the new government.

“Since May, I have spared no effort to form a national unity government,” Hariri said. “I’m a patient man and I’m willing to wait and find a solution.”

Despite expressing hope regarding what he described as a new phase in Lebanese politics in the past two years, Hariri acknowledged that corruption remains a “really serious issue”.

Lebanon was tied for 143rd place of the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index out of 180 countries.

Hariri responded to a question about the recent flood of sewage onto Beirut’s last remaining public beach, Ramlet al-Baida, after which local officials were found to have turned a blind eye to private resorts blocking wastewater drains in the area with cement.

“The issue of corruption is extremely bad for Lebanon,” he said. “What happened two weeks ago in Beirut is a disgrace to Beirut and to us.”

‘How many times has Israel entered Lebanese lands?’

Hariri also remained defiant in the face of Israeli leaders' recent announcements that they have discovered several tunnels crossing from Lebanon into Israel.

Israel has accused Hezbollah of being behind the tunnels and called on the Lebanese government to hold the movement in check - something Hariri thoroughly rejected on Thursday.

“You open the news today and you see some of the headlines about how Lebanon has tunnels that go all the way to Israel… but have you ever heard about how many [Israeli] soldiers are entering every month into Lebanon? Have you ever heard how many times Israel has entered our national waters?” Hariri asked. “Do you think this is fair?”

Israeli military incursions into Lebanese waters, airspace and border areas are a regular occurrence.

Hariri went on to remind the public in London that Israel continues to control the Shebaa Farms, a small swathe of land that Lebanon maintains is Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation.

“For me as a government, [UN Security Council Resolution] 1701 needs to be implemented to the letter,” he said, referring to the UN resolution passed to resolve the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict. “We will not accept anything other than that.

“The tunnels, the Lebanese army will deal with this issue, full stop. But to come out blatantly and say that Lebanon is responsible for all of this, I think Israel has a lot to answer for [regarding] how many intrusions it has made since 1701.”