Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri treads precarious paths between rival camps
BEIRUT - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, appeared to carefully choose his words when discussing the country’s Shia party with arms, Hezbollah. Only two months previously, he loudly predicted that the party’s arms would be chopped off, dismissing its members as Iranian stooges in Lebanese affairs.
Hariri’s Future TV channel has also been critical of the group and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, accusing them of having committed a “crime” in taking part in the wars of Syria and Yemen. However, Hariri told the Journal: “Hezbollah has been a member of this government. This is an inclusive government that has all the big political parties, and that brings stability to the country. My main goal is to preserve this political stability.”
He was referring to the two cabinet posts — industry and sports — held by Hezbollah ministers topped with the fact that had it not been for Hezbollah’s stamp of approval, he wouldn’t have made it to the premiership in 2016. Likewise, without Hariri’s OK, Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun would have never become president.
Some saw it as campaign rhetoric, ahead of parliamentary elections in May. Others claim that Saudi Arabia, via Hariri, was softening its position over Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, claiming that Hariri would not mince his words so carefully without the blessing of Riyadh.
A third view hints at a rift in Hariri’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was accused of detaining the Lebanese prime minister last November. It is no secret that the two men do not get along, with Hariri closer to the family of the late King Abdullah.
The story made headlines then and was recently dissected by the New York Times, which said Hariri was summoned to Riyadh on short notice for what he thought would be a camping trip in the desert with the crown prince. Once in Riyadh, Hariri was reportedly separated from all but one of his bodyguards, had his cell phone taken away and handed a resignation speech that he was forced to read on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV. He put on a suit and complied, the Times reported, only to discover loud criticism from Iran and Hezbollah.
Two weeks of intense speculation followed regarding Hariri’s fate and whereabouts until Hariri returned to Beirut for Lebanon’s National Day celebrations in late November. Instead of leaving office, however, he backtracked on his resignation, with Aoun reportedly serving as an intermediary between Hariri and Nasrallah.
The two men agreed to a media truce and to embark on a national dialogue under the auspices of the Lebanese presidency. Hezbollah committed to stepping back from the Syrian conflict, which relieved some of the pressure on Hariri, Saudi Arabia and his Sunni constituency in Beirut. He, in turn, would tone down his attacks on Nasrallah and halt his calls for regime change in Damascus.
Plotting a safe course between his competing constituencies will not be easy for Hariri. The Iranians are certainly pleased by his new position but few in Riyadh enjoyed reading Hariri’s interview. Their original concern, after all, was that he had done little to check Hezbollah. Since starting a second stint as prime minister 14 months ago, Hariri has done nothing to force Hezbollah into recalling its troops from Syria, where they have been fighting since 2012.
The Saudis also claimed Hariri had very little influence over his own ministers, arguing that the two Hezbollah officials went to Syria last August to attend an international fair, in their capacity as ministers in the Hariri cabinet. In September Hariri’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is Aoun’s son-in-law, sat down for a tete-a-tete with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem.
Hariri appears to be drawing even closer to Hezbollah. Following his resignation, the Army of God chose to back him, rather than exploit his resignation and replace him with one of its Sunni allies. Instead, Hezbollah helped rally the streets of Beirut in support of Hariri, transforming him into unifying symbol of Lebanon.
Sources in Beirut said Hariri was recently informed of Saudi Arabia’s decision to seize parts of his business assets in the kingdom, a course like that adopted with several prominent Saudi royals; the most famous of whom, Prince Al- Waleed bin Talal has been under arrest since early November after refusing to hand over $6 billion to the Saudi state.
Hariri is being asked to relinquish the property and assets of Saudi Oger, a construction firm set up by his father, the late Rafik Hariri, in 1978. Saad Hariri officially discontinued its operations last July but it still runs a handful of contracts within the kingdom and owns assets and premises via the Hariri family. The Saudi government is thought to owe the various Hariri businesses about $8 billion in overdue payments, which it is understood would be waived should the government seize the company.
If true, that alone would be enough to drive a wedge between Hariri and the Saudis, perhaps explaining the tone of Hariri’s interview with the Wall Street Journal. Is it really a U-turn or just pre-election Beiruti politics? Time will tell.