Why Hezbollah is anxious about Saudi Arabia’s comeback in Lebanon

Riyadh seems convinced that opposing Iran and its proxy militias must be an international effort.
March 11, 2018
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) meets with Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula at the governmental palace in Beirut, on February 26. (AFP)
Right signals. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) meets with Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula at the governmental palace in Beirut, on February 26. (AFP)

Very little solid information has filtered out about Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s talks in Riyadh. However, the selfie Hariri posted showing him with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and the Saudi ambassador to Washington is quite telling about the atmosphere of the talks and sends the right signals to Lebanon about the nature of Saudi-Lebanese relations with the Hariri family at the helm.

It is possible that Riyadh wishes to edge closer to Lebanon, as it had previously done with Iraq. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia chose to “revive” its presence even though many had said it was a wasted effort.

Riyadh is trying to recapture its historical presence in Lebanon. One, however, should not risk any comparison between Saudi policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia had always enjoyed close relations with practically all political currents in Lebanon. Those relations were based on the Taif Agreement and the political vision of the Hariri clan.

That was not the case with Iraq. Saudi-Iraqi relations had always been tense, even under Saddam Hussein. The countries had common borders but they had diametrically opposed political systems.

Before French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Tehran, Paris had postponed French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Lebanon because it conflicted with “previous commitments.” France is leading European efforts, in coordination with the United States, to pressure Iran into giving up its expansionist policies and stop its ballistic missile programme.

By postponing Macron’s visit, Paris does not wish to bless a political regime in Lebanon that is under complete Iranian influence. Riyadh, by contrast, feels that it is the spearhead in opposing Iran in the region and must reinforce its presence in Iraq and Lebanon without going as far as opening opposition fronts to Iran in those countries.

It seems that the purpose behind inviting Hariri to Riyadh was to convince him to revive the political strategy he has followed since he backed Michel Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency of Lebanon. However, Hariri’s strategy was quite in tune with Saudi wishes and Riyadh had not objected to it.

It seems that Riyadh is quite upset with Aoun’s pro-Hezbollah positions. Aoun has defended Hezbollah and justified its armed militias. Hezbollah, of course, mounted a media campaign against Saudi Arabia and was found guilty of militarily aiding rebels in Yemen. Riyadh was growing impatient with not reaping the dividends of its political investments in a country that is clearly growing anti-Saudi by the day.

Riyadh seems convinced that opposing Iran and its proxy militias should involve more than just Saudi means. It must be an international effort.

Riyadh is aware of mounting international pressure on Iran. Whether that pressure will lead to war or to peace, an Arab side must be ready for negotiations on the fate of the region.

Saudi communications with Hariri never ceased. There may have been tensions at times but both parties have always been in contact. This probably explains why Hariri expected Riyadh’s official invitation and why he was quick to acquiesce to it. Hariri’s visit must have been prepared for quite some time.

The hullaballoo raised by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s expected visit to Lebanon indicates that the political class in Lebanon has taken notice of Saudi Arabia’s comeback. The Saudi presence will certainly colour the May 6 elections in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Future Movement, led by Hariri, announced its candidates without necessarily coordinating with other pro-Saudi parties. Hariri seems to have taken for granted that he won’t be the only representative for Saudi interests in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia seems to be genuinely interested in building healthy relations with all political forces — except Hezbollah — in Lebanon. During his visit to Beirut, Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula had positive words about Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. This can be read as Saudi interest in developing relations with Shias inside Lebanon, whether through Berri or other Shia leaders not connected to Hezbollah.

They are also interested in building bridges with Christian political blocs. Their relations with Aoun and his movement are a given considering the fact that the leadership of both countries must always be in contact.

The biggest loser in this political game is no doubt Hezbollah, which remains very wary of this sudden Saudi comeback. Hezbollah had thought the crisis created by Hariri’s impetuous resignation announcement in November had banned him from Riyadh’s agenda.

For Hezbollah, a Saudi comeback in Lebanon represents a threat to Iran’s plans for Lebanon. That this comeback coincides with growing international concern about Iran’s expansionist tactics simply adds to Hezbollah’s anxiety.