Will the Lebanese government survive the flood?
In February 2005, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s current prime minister, who, at that time, was running his family’s construction empire in Saudi Arabia, was thrust into the quagmire of Lebanon’s fractured domestic politics.
Forced to step forward following the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Bismarckian figure who helped Lebanon into the modern era, Saad Hariri would learn that nothing is impossible when it comes to Lebanon’s ruling elites or the regional actors that move them.
Saad Hariri’s entry into Lebanese politics likely came as something of a rude awakening, as did the crash course in realpolitik that accompanied it.
Obliged to break bread in Damascus with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, one of the principal suspects in his father’s assassination, Hariri also found himself forced to reconcile with Hezbollah, despite its members’ indictment by the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon in his father’s assassination. Still Hezbollah was awarded seats in Lebanon’s successive cabinets, a compromise that also involved Saad Hariri voting for Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun as president.
Accompanying Hariri’s downward moral spiral were dubious business decisions, which led to him almost bankrupting his father’s flagship company, Saudi Oger.
Ultimately, whatever his intentions, Hariri created the impression in Riyadh of a leader mired by compromise and unable to tend to either his business or political kingdoms. As long as he refuses to tackle this perception, he places his political future and that of his government at risk.
Hariri’s wilful disregard for the fundamental challenges facing the Lebanese government was called out by Thamer al-Sabhan, the Saudi minister of state for Arab Gulf affairs, who issued a tweet reminding everyone, chiefly Hariri, as to the cost of burying his head in the sand.
Sabhan, a close confident of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, whose trips to Lebanon have become almost routine, unleashed a barrage of tweets equating the terrorism of the Islamic State (ISIS) with that of Iran and Hezbollah, or, to use his words, “Satan’s spawn.”
Sabhan reminded the Lebanese that they cannot stay neutral within the regional conflict. “Either you are with or against Iran,” he said.
The importance of such messaging is difficult to overstate. It places Hariri’s premiership at direct risk, forcing him to choose between stepping up and confronting Aoun and Hezbollah or stepping down entirely — a choice Hariri has long sought to avoid.
Complicating matters has been Aoun’s decision to use visits to the United Nations and France to antagonise Saudi Arabia and embarrass his embattled prime minister.
As if deliberately wishing to prove Sabhan’s assessment correct, Aoun spoke to several news outlets, before and during his trips, extolling the role of Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance force and affirming that Iran has at no time meddled in Lebanon’s domestic affairs, statements that at least half of Lebanon might term either controversial or woefully inaccurate.
Perhaps more damagingly, during his UN meetings, Aoun wasted no opportunity to whitewash the reputation of his dictatorial ally in Damascus, whose foreign minister, Walid Muallem, was received by Aoun’s son-in-law, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil during the UN General Assembly. Bassil justified the meeting as essential for the return of the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon but many saw it as part of a plot to normalise relations with the Assad regime, a move Hariri has steadfastly avoided.
These reckless actions from Aoun and Hezbollah are predictable. However, what continues to perplex is the apparent docility of Hariri, who, we can only assume, is hoping that at some point Hezbollah and Aoun will show the political good grace to stop embarrassing him in front of his Saudi patrons and placing Lebanon under still further regional pressure.
While Hariri can maintain his personal pro-Saudi stance, at some point his actions (or lack thereof) will determine both his own political future and that of his government. With every tweet the Saudi minister of state for Arab Gulf affairs sends, that reckoning draws ever closer.
There’s an old story about two men running frantically for cover as heavy rains break. One notices that his friend is holding a closed umbrella and asks why he doesn’t use it. His friend smiles and answers: “I am keeping it for a rainy day.” Saad Hariri might still think that his rainy day lies a long way off. It doesn’t. The skies above him are getting dark.