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.
Nicholas Blanford is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.