Lebanon watches and waits as regional powers circle

Sunday 12/11/2017
Wait-and-see mode. Workers hang a poster of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri with Arabic words that read “We are all Saad” on a seaside street in Beirut, on November 9. (AP)

Beirut- Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are likely heading for a full-blown crisis following the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as the tiny Mediterranean country finds itself dragged into the bitter regional confrontation between an expansionist Iran and a newly bull­ish Saudi Arabia.

The initial victim of Riyadh’s tough new policy towards Lebanon is Hariri, who appears to have been compelled to step down by his erst­while Saudi backers while on an un­announced visit to Saudi Arabia.

Sources close to Hariri and the Saudi leadership said Riyadh — or more specifically Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz — had lost patience with Hariri’s apparently accommodating stance towards Hezbollah.

Hariri has repeatedly stated that his priority is to maintain political, sectarian and economic stability in Lebanon, even if that compels him to compromise with Hezbollah. The Saudis, however, appear to believe the arrangement is one-sided with Hezbollah dominating and showing little effort to reciprocate.

“The [political] losses [in Leba­non] from its patronage of Hariri have become unbearable [for the Saudis],” Imad Salamey, an associ­ate professor of political science at the Lebanese American Univer­sity in Beirut said by phone. Even though the Hariri resignation could herald turbulent times for the country, Salamey added, “the con­sequence for Lebanon is something beyond Saudi interests.”

That sense of frustration with Hariri reflects Saudi Arabia’s chang­ing attitude towards Lebanon since King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended the throne on the death of his half-brother King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015. King Abdullah had a special af­fection for Lebanon and the Hariri family. Saad Hariri was the Saudi’s main Sunni interlocutor in Lebanon during King Abdullah’s reign.

However, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed dis­tanced the kingdom from Lebanon, preferring to focus on domestic de­velopments, the war in Syria and, within two months of King Sal­man’s accession to the throne, the conflict in Yemen. For the Saudis, Lebanon, given the presence and influence of Hezbollah, was viewed solely through the lens of its con­frontation with Iran.

It is unclear whether Hariri will return to Lebanon and under what conditions set by the Saudi leader­ship. If Hariri is being pressured to return to mount a direct and open challenge to Hezbollah, he would likely fail and possibly plunge the country into more strife and politi­cal deadlock.

If Hariri stays away from Leba­non, it would probably spell the end of his political career. Many Leba­nese analysts saw his return to the premiership a year ago as a last at­tempt to rebuild his waning political stock. While the humiliating nature of his resignation has earned him a modicum of sympathy, it is difficult to see how he can revive his politi­cal fortunes from outside Lebanon.

As for Hezbollah, Hassan Nas­rallah, the party’s leader, struck a calm and almost sympathetic tone in a speech in response to Hariri’s resignation, squarely blaming Sau­di Arabia for forcing the Lebanese prime minister’s hand.

Hariri was useful to Hezbollah as a prominent Lebanese Sunni who could serve as prime minister with some credibility and did not pre­sent an obstacle to the movement. If Hariri does not return to the pre­miership, it could be difficult to find another credible Sunni leader willing to risk the wrath of a bellig­erent Riyadh by cooperating with Hezbollah in government. Hezbol­lah, as the dominant political force in the country, can weather a pro­longed constitutional and political crisis, as it has done in the past.

“From Hezbollah’s perspective, [Hariri’s resignation] is an amateur­ish move and they will for the time being decide to outwit it, betting this is all their opponents have,” Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Wash­ington, said in e-mailed comments.

“Hariri’s manoeuvring room is limited to start with. His resigna­tion does neither weaken Hezbol­lah’s bargaining hand nor improve his chances at exacting significant concessions from Hezbollah, espe­cially at a time the latter feels victo­rious in a battle in Syria that pitted it against a coalition of regional and international powers.”

With Hariri absent, Lebanon is in a nervous wait-and-see mode. Nas­rallah’s call for calm eased fears that Hariri’s resignation could trigger in­tra-Muslim clashes in the streets of Beirut. Even the persistent specula­tion that Israel and Hezbollah are close to all-out war has dissipated — slightly — by the developments in Saudi Arabia. Israel will not unilat­erally launch a war against Hezbol­lah to satisfy Saudi interests.

Instead, Israel is likely to watch Riyadh cautiously to see what measures the Saudis will take against Lebanon and Hezbollah. Some in Lebanon, including sen­ior people in Hariri’s own Future Movement party, fear that Saudi Arabia is about to use the economic weapon against Lebanon in what will be a quixotic effort to turn the Lebanese against Hezbollah.

“Lebanon is going to be the new Qatar,” said a Future Movement MP bleakly, meaning Saudi Arabia will impose a financial and economic blockade on Lebanon like the one against Qatar.

This could entail the withdraw­al of Saudi funds from Lebanese banks, the scaling back or cancel­lation of flights between Riyadh and Beirut, the expulsion of Leba­nese working in Saudi Arabia and the imposition of sanctions against any Lebanese dealing with Hezbol­lah. Several Lebanese businessmen are under arrest in Saudi Arabia, caught up in the anti-corruption drive that has netted dozens of royal family members and leading businessmen.

In what could be an opening shot, the Saudi government on Novem­ber 9 requested all its citizens leave Lebanon, the Saudi Al Arabiya tel­evision channel reported.

Although the effects of an eco­nomic blockade could have ca­lamitous results for Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards Iran will quash any misgivings at bringing Lebanon to its knees. Sources close to the Saudi leadership said the latest moves by Riyadh have the unequivocal backing of the White House, which shares Saudi Arabia’s enmity towards Iran and supports a more aggressive policy against the Islamic Republic.