saad al hariri

What’s happening between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon?

Lebanon was stunned on Nov. 4 and its still in shock when its prime minister, Saad Hariri, speaking from Saudi Arabia, delivered a halting resignation speech. Mr. Hariri said he left Beirut because he feared assassination. He placed the blame for his long-distance resignation on Iran and its main ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Reuters reports that from the moment Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Friday Nov. 3, he was in for a surprise.

Hariri landed in Riyadh on Nov. 3, a Friday, expecting a routine, cordial visit with the Saudi ruler, King Salman, who had summoned him to the foreign capital the day before.

But it was not to be a normal visit.“When Hariri’s plane landed in Riyadh, he got the message immediately that something was wrong,” a Hariri source told Reuters. “There was no one waiting for him.”

Instead of being greeted on the tarmac by the usual lineup of Saudi princes or ministry officials, the Saudis confiscated his phone on the spot, Lebanese officials said. Hariri told aides his trip to Riyadh would be quick. He expected later in the weekend to meet the president of Egypt at a Red Sea resort.

He hasn’t been heard from since.Harari — who has a home in Riyadh — has given no indication of when he’d be back in  Lebanon.Lebanese President Michel Aoun has privately told foreign ambassadors that Hariri has been kidnapped.

king salman saudi arabia hariri lebanon

Hariri’s resignation came at the same time as more than 200 people, including 11 Saudi princes, current and former ministers and tycoons, were arrested in an anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia.

On his last trip to Saudi Arabia, just a few days before, Hariri had met with senior Saudi intelligence at the behest of the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely regarded as the true power behind the throne.

He’d returned from the meeting “pleased and relaxed,” saying he’d heard “encouraging statements” from the crown prince, including a promise for a Saudi aid package.

Hezbollah was part of Lebanon’s national unity government formed in late 2016 with Mr. Hariri as the prime minister. Iran and Saudi Arabia — which views itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Sunni community — blessed the power-sharing agreement.

  • Middle East Geopolitics and Lebanon’s implication

The move thrust Lebanon back to the forefront of a struggle that is reshaping the Middle East, between the conservative Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite revolutionary Iran.

Their rivalry has fueled conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they back opposing sides, and now risks destabilizing Lebanon, where Saudi has long tried to weaken the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, Lebanon’s main political power and part of the ruling coalition.Now, more than at any point in modern history, Iran and Saudi Arabia are squared off against each other as a race to consolidate influence nears a climax from Sana’a to Beirut and the tens of thousands of miles in between.

Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Lebanon has largely avoided the conflicts sweeping the Middle East. Even the war that is raging in Syria, Lebanon’s much larger neighbor, has generally left the country unscathed. That calm is now threatened as the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies set their sights on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran even if Washington calls upon (officially)“all states and parties to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and constitutional processes.”

Guardian reports that Iran now all but controls a land corridor that runs from Tehran to Tartous in Syria, on the Mediterranean coast, giving it access to a seaport a long way to its west,and far from the heavily patrolled waters of the Arabian Gulf. The route passes through the centre of Iraq, and Syria, skirting the Lebanese border and what were some of the most active areas of the Syrian civil war, which have been returned to regime control. Probably this made Saudi Arabia and the US and probably Israel to push for a regime change in Lebanon.

The Hariri sources say Hariri believed he had convinced Saudi officials of the need to maintain an entente with Hezbollah for the sake of Lebanon’s stability. Certainly there’s somehow a “Trump’s hand” in this crisis. That calm is now threatened as the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies set their sights on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.

Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his older brother Bahaa as Lebanon’s top Sunni politician. Bahaa is believed to be in Saudi Arabia and members of the Hariri family have been asked to travel there to pledge allegiance to him, but have refused, the sources say.

In the days since, Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of plotting against the kingdom and ordered Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Threats from top Saudi officials are causing new turmoil in a tiny country with complicated sectarian politics, failed power-sharing arrangements and a long history of foreign meddling.

Hezbollah has a heavily armed fighting force, in addition to seats in parliament and government. Saudi-backed efforts to weaken the group in Lebanon a decade ago led to Sunni-Shi‘ite clashes and a Hezbollah takeover of Beirut.

If Saudi leaders think they can score an easy victory in Lebanon against Hezbollah, it will be another misjudgment that adds to a dangerous and combustible moment in the Middle East.Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s during a civil war and an Israeli invasion, is now the country’s dominant political and military force.

Analysts say that Mr. Hariri’s resignation exposes Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government to harsher United States sanctions, a potential war with Israel or even an economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, similar to the one imposed on Qatar.

  • Hariri’s resignation speech shocked Lebanon.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, told ambassadors to Lebanon that Saudi Arabia had kidnapped Hariri, a senior Lebanese official said. On Friday, France said it wanted Hariri to have “all his freedom of movement”.

saad al hariri lebanon

In his speech, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the region. He said the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it,” language which one source close to him said was not typical of the Lebanese leader.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement on Saturday that Washington calls upon “all states and parties to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and constitutional processes.”

  • Sources: Reuters, NYPost, NYTimes, Al-Jazeera, RT.com, the Guardian.
  • Source photo credit: Saad al Hariri’s facebook

 

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