BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati held an ice-breaking meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz in a development that is likely to improve his ties with Riyadh strained since Mikati replaced Saad Hariri as premier two years ago.
It was Mikati’s first meeting with a high-ranking Saudi official since he was propelled to the premiership in January 2001 in what the opposition March 14 coalition termed “a Hezbollah-led coup” that toppled Hariri’s national unity Cabinet.
The meeting, held at Salman’s residence in the Saudi capital Riyadh Monday night, was also attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and the Lebanese finance, foreign affairs, economy and industry ministers and Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri.
A Lebanese official said Saudi Arabia’s openness to Mikati, following a two-year boycott, would have positive results in Lebanon.
“The Salman-Mikati meeting will help defuse political and sectarian tensions in the country, facilitate the approval of a new election law and subsequently, lead to the formation of a neutral Cabinet to supervise the parliamentary elections,” the official told The Daily Star.
Beirut MP Atef Majdalani from Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc was more reserved in assessing the Saudi gesture toward Mikati: “It could leave positive results in Lebanon and give a boost to the moderation tide represented by the Future Movement.” Mikati briefed the Cabinet Tuesday on the results of his talks with Salman, saying that the Saudi crown prince showed understanding toward the government’s policy to disassociate Lebanon from the repercussions of the turmoil in Syria.
“We discussed the historic relations between Lebanon and the kingdom ... and the policy we are following toward the developments in the region, particularly in Syria. This policy helps protect our country from the negative repercussions of the situation in Syria,” Mikati said.
He added that Salman showed understanding toward “this position and again stressed the need for Lebanon to preserve the values of coexistence and openness for which it is distinctive.”
For his part, Salman stressed “the need for Lebanon to preserve the values of coexistence and openness for which it is distinguished and which represent the most important elements of its humanitarian wealth,” the state-run National News Agency reported.
The meeting with Salman came a day after Mikati had talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz and his deputy, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, son of Saudi King Abdullah.
Mikati was in Riyadh to attend the two-day Arab Economic and Social Development Summit that opened in the Saudi capital Monday. He had not met with any senior Saudi official during his previous visits to the kingdom to attend conferences or perform hajj.
Mikati’s ties with Saudi Arabia soured after he was appointed prime minister in January 2011, replacing Hariri, who heads the Future Movement. Hariri, who has close ties with the Saudi royal family, resigned after ministers loyal to the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition quit his government, forcing its collapse.
In Riyadh, Mikati expressed hope that Gulf countries would retract travel advisories to Lebanon, which were issued in 2011 in light of growing security concerns by Arab states.
“I understand the existing concerns by Gulf countries which prompted them to discourage their nationals from traveling to Lebanon but I am certain that this will soon pass,” Mikati wrote on his Facebook page.
Addressing the Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail, Mikati said the priority should be holding the parliamentary elections, scheduled in early June, on time.
Referring to the meetings of a parliamentary subcommittee tasked with studying a new electoral law, he expressed hope that the feuding parties would agree on “an electoral law that represents the various opinions and aspirations.”
Mikati reiterated his support for the Cabinet’s draft electoral law based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized districts.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel warned that any delays in reaching an agreement on a electoral law could lead to a “technical postponement” of the elections.
“If a new election law has not been approved before the end of February, a technical postponement becomes inevitable,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
“Administrative, security and logistics preparations require a great deal of time, particularly picking an election supervising committee,” Charbel said, when asked to elaborate on “a technical postponement.”
His comments came as the parliamentary subcommittee, which includes MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties, held yet another round of talks Tuesday without making any progress in its attempts to agree on a united vote system.
Some subcommittee members indicated that Wednesday’s meeting could be the final one before the thorny issue of a new electoral law is referred to Speaker Nabih Berri.
In a sign reflecting difficulties in agreeing on an election system, the subcommittee’s evening session was canceled to allow for behind-the-scene contacts and consultations among the rival factions with the aim of reaching common ground.
Tuesday was the 15th round of talks held by the subcommittee in a bid to reconcile conflicting proposals for an election law to replace the 1960 law, which has been rejected by officials on both sides of the political divide.
The subcommittee has been examining a hybrid vote proposal that combines proportional representation and a winner-takes-all system.
However, statements by team members after the meeting clearly indicated that the gap was still very wide over a new electoral legislation. Also, Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun and and MP Akram Shehayeb from Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc have announced the death of the hybrid proposal, further throwing the panel into disarray.
“The discussions were to a large extent deep, serious, frank and transparent. We resumed discussions today in order to reach an equation that can ensure equal power sharing [between Muslims and Christians] on the one hand, and political balance on the other,” MP Robert Ghanem, the subcommittee chairman, told reporters after the morning session held in Parliament.
He added that the lawmakers were trying to agree on an election system that combines the proportional representation and the winner-takes-all system.
Ghanem said if the subcommittee reached a dead end in its talks Wednesday, he would present a report on the outcome of the discussions to Berri and through him to the joint parliamentary committees which would have the final say on a new electoral law.
Hariri’s Future bloc again slammed the Orthodox Gathering’s electoral proposal , warning the draft would lead to increasing extremism.
“The so-called Orthodox Gathering’s proposal is rejected both in form and content and it should not be discussed, especially since it will lead to weakening moderation and increasing the intensity of extremism in the Lebanese society,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
It added that the Orthodox proposal, which calls for each sect to elect its own lawmakers under a system of proportional representation with Lebanon as a single district, “contravened the rules of the Constitution and the charter of coexistence among the Lebanese.”
“The bloc is not committed to any specific [electoral] law. It is open to discussing any election law,” the statement said. It stressed that any vote law “must ensure a true representation and freedom of choice.”
FPM leader MP Michel Aoun, who strongly supports the Orthodox proposal, vowed to block any electoral law that did not ensure a real equal power sharing between Christians and Muslims.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah will weigh in on domestic and regional issues in a speech Friday to mark the occasion of Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.