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Surprise visit of a Hezbollah official to the Emirates

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The unexpected visit of Wafiq Safa, an official from Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, to the United Arab Emirates has stirred surprise among the Lebanese populace. This development is particularly striking due to the prevailing tensions and disparities between Hezbollah and the Arab Gulf states. Notably, the UAE Cabinet designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization back in 2014, a stance subsequently mirrored by the Gulf Cooperation Council in 2016.

The visit and its intricacies were initially shrouded in secrecy, with no official announcement made. However, subsequent revelations shed light on its purpose: an inquiry into the status of seven Lebanese detainees held in the United Arab Emirates. Identified by Afif Shoman, the spokesperson for the families of the detainees and known as “Abu Fadl,” the individuals in question include Abdullah Hani Abdullah Al-Khayyam (sentenced to life), Ali Hassan Mobader from Sidon (serving a life sentence), Ahmed Ali Makkawi from Tripoli (sentenced to 15 years), Abdel Rahman Talal Shoman from Kfardounin (also serving a life sentence), Ahmed Faour from Al-Khayyam (sentenced to 15 years), Fawzi Muhammad Dakroub from Zqaq Al-Blat (serving a life sentence), and Walid Muhammad Idris from Al-Ain/Bekaa (sentenced to 10 years).

In response to inquiries regarding Wafiq Safa’s visit to the Emirates, a spokeswoman from the US State Department declined to provide a comment. Later the spokeswoman tersely stated, “We have no comment on Safa’s visit to the Emirates.”

It is notable that over the past few years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has detained numerous Lebanese individuals, predominantly from the Shiite sect, on allegations pertaining to involvement with Hezbollah.

In March of the preceding year, the UAE apprehended 10 Lebanese individuals, only to release them two months later, a move prompted by the demise of one of the detainees, Ghazi Ezzedine. This incident triggered considerable condemnation from various human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Shoman, corroborating the circumstances, affirmed that seven individuals remained in custody at the time.

In 2018, the UAE detained eight Lebanese individuals on allegations of “communicating with Hezbollah.” Subsequently, in May 2019, an Emirati court rendered a verdict against them, with three individuals receiving lengthy prison sentences. Among them, one person was sentenced to life imprisonment, while two others received ten-year terms. This judicial outcome was characterized by Amnesty International as “unjust and fabricated,” citing allegations that the confessions were obtained under duress and coercion.

Nonetheless, in June 2019, the UAE released three Lebanese individuals who were part of the detained group, facilitating their deportation back to Lebanon. Fast forward to 2021, mediation endeavors led by former Director General of Lebanese Public Security, Abbas Ibrahim, culminated in the liberation of 11 detainees.

With Safa’s unexpected visit to the Emirates, numerous questions naturally arise, particularly concerning the future trajectory of relations between Hezbollah and this Gulf nation.

Limited Mission

“This visit is rare and exceptional, occurring outside the typical framework given the strained relations between Hezbollah, the Emirates, and other Gulf states,” remarked Dr. Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science. “Available information suggests that Safa, who arrived in the Emirates on Tuesday and departed on Thursday, was solely authorized to discuss matters concerning those detained in the UAE.” Dr. Abdullah continued, stating that “Four of the detainees were found to be engaged in espionage activities on behalf of Hezbollah and Iran, while three others faced accusations related to drug trafficking and money laundering.”

Abdullah emphasized in an interview, “The information confirms that Safa was received by the UAE only through substantial intervention and mediation, possibly with the direct involvement of Syria and even the Syrian President himself. It appears that for the sake of the Syrian President and Syria, the UAE decided to accept the visit.”

According to Abdullah, it is anticipated that the UAE “carefully deliberated the matter and established a set of conditions. It is possible that the UAE requested Hezbollah to acknowledge its involvement in espionage activities before considering the release of the detainees. Additionally, the UAE may have demanded assurances that such reprehensible actions would not be repeated on its soil and that Hezbollah would cease to pose a threat to Emirati interests and citizens.”

Abdullah suggests that if the party agrees to these conditions, the UAE may consider releasing the detainees. He adds, “There are also reports suggesting that the UAE may have initiated discussions on other matters, such as the situation in southern Lebanon, urging the party to play a role in reducing tensions and avoiding escalation. This approach reflects an understanding that a conflict would not benefit either Lebanon or the wider region, along with addressing the issue of the presidential vacancy.”

Political analyst Faisal Abdel Sater, with close ties to Hezbollah, refuted claims that Bashar al-Assad mediated the release of the detainees. He emphasized that it was solely an initiative by the UAE, with al-Assad merely providing assurances for the success of the mission. Abdel Sater elucidated on the sequence of events, stating, “The matter commenced approximately two months ago when the UAE initiated contact with Hezbollah regarding the resolution of this issue. Interestingly, this occurred despite the UAE’s prior firm stance on the matter, without Hezbollah offering any concessions in return. This development has raised questions and uncertainties within the party, particularly in light of the UAE’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”

After numerous discussions, the matter was also broached by President al-Assad. Abdel Sater revealed to the media, “An agreement was reached, and a private plane was dispatched on Monday to transport the Hezbollah delegation, led by Safa, to the Emirates.”

He emphasizes, “Given my extensive knowledge of this matter, I affirm that Safa’s mission is strictly confined to securing the release of the detainees. As for the intentions of the Emiratis and their potential exploitation of the situation, Hezbollah has no involvement whatsoever, neither directly nor indirectly.”

A Complex Breach

“In any event,” as described by political affairs researcher Dr. Wassim Bazzi, “the UAE’s willingness to engage with a security figure from Hezbollah represents a significant breach across multiple dimensions of politics, security, and strategy. The implications and ramifications of this visit extend far beyond its initially declared purpose, underscoring its profound importance.”

In an interview, Bazzi emphasized, “We must wait to see the extent to which the UAE has opted to alter its policy towards Lebanon and the degree to which it has shifted from maximum confrontation to maximum dialogue with a group it previously engaged with solely on security matters. It seems that this qualitative shift will have repercussions for what preceded it and what follows.”

Regarding whether it was solely an Emirati initiative, Bazzi responded, “There have been numerous intermediaries who contributed to shaping this development. What we are witnessing now is just the beginning, and in the days and weeks ahead, we can expect to uncover a multi-faceted scenario with far-reaching implications.”

Abdel Sater contends that Safa’s visit disproves “all the claims propagated by certain Lebanese officials regarding Hezbollah’s purported undermining of Lebanon’s relations with Arab nations. If that were true, the UAE would not have initiated contact with him.”

Furthermore, the UAE’s engagement with Hezbollah underscores, as per Abdel Sater, that “this world only respects strength. The UAE reached out to Hezbollah because it recognized its power and significant influence within Lebanon, surpassing the confines of Lebanese affairs. Without this strength, the UAE would not have taken this step despite the myriad rumors and propaganda campaigns launched against Hezbollah.”

He added, “While some may view this initiative as potentially opening doors for future relations between the two parties, this is not assured. The rivalry between Hezbollah and the UAE, the latter being among the nations normalizing relations with Israel, stems from political stances, and this discord may escalate.”

A Strained Relationship

The relationship between Hezbollah and the UAE has long been marked by tension and divergence, rooted in differing positions and disagreements on various regional issues. According to Abdel Sater, “The UAE adopted a stance against Hezbollah post-2006,” referring to the July War. Among the most contentious issues between the two parties was Hezbollah’s military backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the UAE supported the Syrian opposition at that time.

In 2013, Nasrallah announced his readiness to personally engage in combat in Syria against “takfiri terrorists,” a declaration that unsettled the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Abdul Latif Al-Zayani, the Secretary-General of the GCC, condemned Nasrallah’s speech as “inflammatory, irresponsible, and contradictory.” Consequently, the GCC imposed sanctions on Hezbollah later that year for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Tensions between the UAE and Hezbollah were further exacerbated by Hezbollah’s support for the Houthi opposition in Yemen and its close alliance with Iran, which is viewed as the Gulf Cooperation Council’s avowed adversary.

In 2014, the UAE Cabinet designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, with Nasrallah subsequently describing Bahrain as a “second Israel.” Nasrallah’s statements prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to issue a rebuke, condemning them as “explicit incitement to violence and interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain.” In response, Abdul Sattar Issa, the Lebanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was summoned to the GCC General Secretariat in Riyadh to register a formal protest.

A year later, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries collectively classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, denouncing the party’s actions as a “threat to Arab national security.” In a statement issued by the Council’s General Secretariat, member states affirmed their decision “to designate Hezbollah militias, along with all their leaders, factions, and affiliated entities,” as a terrorist organization.

According to statements by Al-Zayani, this decision was prompted by “the ongoing hostilities of these militias, their recruitment of youths from GCC countries for terrorist activities, weapons and explosives smuggling, incitement to unrest, and fomentation of chaos and violence, all in blatant disregard for the sovereignty, security, and stability of the region.”

In response to this classification, Nasrallah underscored the disparity in perspectives between Arab political leaders and the Arab populace, highlighting the unwavering stance of the Arab people towards Israel.

In a surprising turn of events, the UAE restored diplomatic ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2018 and played a pivotal role in facilitating the normalization of relations between Arab nations and Syria, following Syria’s suspension from the Arab League for over a decade. Moreover, the UAE reestablished communication with Iran in 2019, and the subsequent year, it inked a peace agreement with Israel.

Last year, Ambassador Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations, welcomed the Security Council’s adoption of a resolution renewing the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This resolution incorporated several significant proposals advocated by the UAE, including measures to enhance the independence of UNIFIL’s operations and mobility. These measures run counter to the preferences of Hezbollah.

Between dealings and silence

The news of Wafiq Safa’s visit to the Emirates sparked significant reactions in the Lebanese media and online platforms, with journalists and citizens alike racing to gather information and offer analyses. However, political figures, particularly those critical of Hezbollah, opted to maintain silence, refraining from commenting on the visit. Meanwhile, social media activists took to their platforms to express a range of opinions and interpretations regarding the development.

Journalist Tony Bouloss took to the “X” platform to share his insights. In one post, he speculated, “Hezbollah dispatched Wafiq Safa to the Emirates in an attempt to seek mediation and impose conditions aimed at deterring Israel from initiating a devastating war reminiscent of its founding era.” In a subsequent tweet, he accused Hezbollah of backtracking on its principles, deceiving the public, and fomenting hostility towards nations and peoples, all while being willing to compromise to further its own interests.

Meanwhile, Tony expressed his hopes for Safa to witness notions of civilization, development, lawfulness, and state prestige during his visit to the Emirates. He juxtaposed these ideals with what he described as the destructive consequences brought about by Hezbollah’s extremist sectarian agenda in Lebanon. Paul highlighted Hezbollah’s past allegations against the UAE, accusing it of supporting Israel, only to find the party now seeking assistance from the same country it once criticized. He recalled a statement by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, who purportedly claimed that his greatest achievement was declaring “jihad” against Saudi Arabia rather than resisting Israel.

Journalist Rami Naim weighed in on Twitter, drawing parallels between the role played by Major General Abbas Ibrahim and the current activities of Wafiq Safa during his visit to the Emirates.

Naim questioned whether non-Shiite individuals were prohibited from engaging in security and political coordination with Arab and Western nations, citing this as a possible reason for the sidelining of Major General Elias Al-Bisari, a contender for the presidency of the republic. He further questioned the deliberate marginalization of a Maronite Foreign Minister and the Maronite General Director of Public Security. Naeem speculated whether there might be a deal involving Hezbollah, in which the interests of Maronites, Sunnis, and Druze were overlooked in the negotiations.

In a tweet, Ibrahim azzi voiced his critique, alleging that the party betrays individuals advocating for peace by subsequently recognizing Israel through a maritime border demarcation agreement. He noted the party’s tendency to censure Arab nations that forge agreements with Israel, only to then dispatch Wafiq Safa to engage with them. Qazi further asserted that the party demonizes those advocating for a diplomatic resolution before ultimately reaching a border demarcation agreement. He criticized the party for labeling opponents as agents, despite such agents often originating from within its own ranks.

While some voiced criticism regarding the party’s involvement in state-level negotiations with the Emirates, others highlighted the plight of Lebanese detainees in Syrian regime prisons. Still, others emphasized the importance of all efforts aimed at repatriating Lebanese citizens to their homeland, viewing such endeavors as commendable.

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