Saudi Arabia is moving fast in its modernisation drive, the latest positive development being the historic visit of Lebanon’s Catholic patriarch to Riyadh where he met King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al Rai is one of the most prominent Christian figures in the Middle East. While Lebanese Christian politicians often meet Saudi rulers in Riyadh, Al Rai is the first church leader to visit the kingdom. The invitation comes amid a drive to modernise Saudi Arabia’s traditionally conservative society that’s being led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who vowed last month to eradicate extremism and return the kingdom to what he said was “moderate” Islam.
While symbols of Christianity are banned in Saudi Arabia, Al Rai was seen openly wearing a cross and being greeted by one of the kingdom’s most influential ministers, a leading Saudi minister, Thamer Al Sabhan. The photos hint at the rapid change under way in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. On top of his promise to revolutionise the oil-dependent Saudi economy, and reboot a traditionally cautious foreign policy, the 32-year-old also says he’ll change the religious basis of Saudi society — stamping out extremism and ushering in a “moderate” version of Islam. This visit also comes at an important time where Saudi Arabia is moving fast to collect allies to help combat the rapid and aggressive expansionism of Iran in the region.
From Yemen to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon Iranian proxies have become a formidable threat to the regional balance where Riyadh has traditionally been a heavyweight.
Last week, Sa’ad Hariri, Lebanon’s premier resigned from office, citing fears for his life. Hariri leads a government that has been consistently bullied by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group that is both a parallel military force and has representatives in the parliament.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir has vowed that Saudi Arabia would not allow Lebanon to “be the platform from which harm comes to Saudi Arabia”. He accused the Iran-backed Hezbollah group of hijacking the Lebanese system and placing obstacles in front of Hariri’s government. “Lebanese people are innocent and have been dominated by Hezbollah and we need to find a way to help the Lebanese come out from under the thumb of Hezbollah,” Al Jubeir added.
In this backdrop, the Saudi visit of Patriarch Beshara, who has sought to establish a “sincere and complete dialogue” with Muslims, is a step towards greater cooperation between the two great faiths.