BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai landed in Riyadh Monday evening, marking the first official visit to the kingdom by the church. During his visit Tuesday, Rai is expected to meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has remained in Riyadh since his resignation on Nov. 4. He is also set to meet with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and later with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Upon his arrival, Rai was welcomed by Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, and Lebanon’s recently appointed Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Abdul Sattar Issa.
Rai, along with the accompanying delegation and Sabhan, briefly sat in the welcome lounge of Riyadh’s airport before departing to meet with the Lebanese diaspora in Riyadh.
“Despite the crises, the brotherly relationship that gathers Lebanon and Saudi Arabia is always present,” Rai said, speaking in the evening during the meeting with the expatriates. “Lebanon will survive as long as Muslim-Christian coexistence is there.”
Rai’s visit to Saudi Arabia coincided with the fallout from Hariri’s resignation. The premier announced he was exiting his post in a televised statement made from Riyadh.
Days before Hariri’s resignation was announced, the patriarch had received an invitation to travel to Saudi Arabia.
Following the premier’s bombshell statement, there was speculation over whether Rai would continue with his scheduled visit. As he left Lebanon, Rai briefly spoke about a previously planned visit that had fallen through, although he didn’t give details of why it hadn’t taken place.
“This visit took its first stage in 2013 and the circumstances [at the time] didn’t allow us to go through with it, and it is now taking on a historic and very important character given the situation in which we are living today,” Rai said, speaking from Rafik Hariri International Airport before embarking on the visit.
“I want to express my gratitude to King Salman for this invitation that came in conjunction with Hariri’s resignation. The Lebanese are waiting for him to return,” Rai said from Beirut’s airport in the presence of Saudi Arabia’s Charge d’Affaires Walid Bukhari and Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury.
Commenting on the interview that Hariri gave Future TV Sunday in his first public appearance since announcing the resignation, Rai expressed his satisfaction, saying that it was a reassuring sign.
“I personally was very comfortable with what he said and Hariri answered many questions the Lebanese had [regarding the resignation],” Rai said.
Speaking from the airport, Bukhari responded to doubts raised by President Michel Aoun about Hariri’s situation in Riyadh, reiterating that he told the president that Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil can visit Hariri personally.
Bukhari relayed this message during a meeting with Aoun last week. However, at the time, sources from the Foreign Ministry told The Daily Star that Bassil had declined the offer, suggesting that the minister would only visit Saudi Arabia after Hariri’s return to Beirut.
Bukhari also stressed that there was no tension within the Lebanese expatriate community in Saudi Arabia in light of the political situation.
“The Lebanese expats are [as if they are] in their [own] country and they are treated with all respect and appreciation by Saudi Arabian authorities,” he said.
Rai had also touched on this, saying that the Lebanese people love and respect Saudi Arabia.
“When things are based on mutual friendship, I don’t think that the [Saudi] leadership will tell them ‘please head home’ because there is a crisis,” Rai said, describing Lebanon’s friendship with the kingdom as “historic.”