Saudi Arabia and Hariri’s Resignation: A Lebanese Explosion Delayed, Not Prevented

The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced in Riyadh on November 4, 2017 has provoked a rumor that he was being held hostage by the Saudis. It has also disrupted the internal settlement policy Hariri launched a year ago.

The proposed settlement includes coming to terms with Hezbollah and its political team and moving internal Lebanese differences to the back burner, which appears to be a major concession by Saudi Arabia and its Lebanese team to Hezbollah and its regional partners.

Soon after a political consensus was reached in the first few months of President Michel Aoun’s term in office, developments in Lebanon took an unexpected turn. President Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil adopted a foreign policy stand that contradicted the position held by the government. Gebran Bassil focused on the Syrian crisis. His contacts with Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, came into conflict with the Lebanese government’s policy of distancing itself from Syria. Furthermore, Gebran Bassil stopped discussing vital aspects of his ministry’s mission with Hariri and started acting at his own discretion.

These facts confirm the Saudis’ opinion that Lebanon is taking its lead from Iran. The latest evidence of this is President Aoun’s statement of October 31, 2017, when he said that “Iran is present and has its influence in the Middle East and it must be taken into account.” This statement, made while Iran was strengthening its positions in Iraq and Syria, has increased Iran’s influence in the Arab world plus it has hampered Riyadh’s ability to counter it. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, involved in an expensive war in Yemen, has opted for confrontation with Iran by attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hariri’s declared resignation is evidence of Riyadh’s tremendous effort to stand up against Hezbollah. The Saudi authorities are using their influence on Hariri to cut short the divided system of government in Lebanon, which can lead to the legalization of Hezbollah and its role in the region. Saudi Arabia used Hariri’s resignation speech to accuse Lebanon of declaring a war on it.

It has become clear that Saudi Arabia has little respect for the Lebanese case. For example, they want Hariri to pledge to change Hezbollah’s policy in the region. Several diplomatic sources have said that it is Hezbollah’s involvement in the hostilities in Yemen rather than Hariri’s resignation that is the key element of the Saudi position on the Lebanese crisis at international venues. The Saudi authorities believe that Hezbollah is the only force that can control the launch of Yemeni ballistic missiles capable of reaching Riyadh. When asked about the reasons behind the escalation of tension with Lebanon and Hariri, the Saudis say the problem of Lebanon is its own internal affair. They believe that the Lebanese government must make an official statement guaranteeing Hezbollah’s non-involvement in the regional conflicts, including of that in Yemen, and also Hezbollah must promise to honor this pledge.

According to Riyadh, Lebanon must force Hezbollah to pull its advisers back from Yemen, to stop any political, information and military support to the Houthi movement known as Ansar Allah in Yemen and beyond it, as well as to withdraw Ansar Allah fighters from Lebanon. It is clear that Saudi Arabia, which marked time in the first week after Hariri’s resignation, is becoming increasingly pessimistic, especially after a recent statement by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in which he clearly put forth his party’s position on Yemen.

This is all about the regional attitude to the latest developments in Lebanon. As for international players, the US reaction to Hariri’s resignation statement looks suspicious and has only strengthened the rumor that the problem goes deeper and is more dangerous than Hariri’s allegedly enforced resignation and stay in Saudi Arabia. Washington analysts say Hariri’s actions should be analyzed in a broader context of confrontation with Iran in Lebanon (after the Yemeni events) and could be designed to weaken the Lebanese government and remove Hezbollah from power as a prelude to a new civil war as part of Israel’s larger hostilities against Hezbollah.

The growing threat of a new war in the Middle East explains the US administration’s clear and harsh reaction plus a warning of the above scenario, which shows that US allies [in the region] are resolved to prevent the crisis from reaching a point of no return. This US reaction has also put an end to the international silence, which lasted for the first few days after Hariri announced his decision to resign.

It should be said that the position of the US Department of State differs from that of the White House, which has taken the side of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud against Iran’s expansion in the Arab world. On November 10, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cautioned against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts. This shows that the attitude of President Trump and his administration to Saudi Arabia differs from that of the US defense and state departments, just as it happened during the blockade of Qatar in June of this year.

It appears that Washington has been split into those who call for giving Saudi Arabia a free hand and resisting Iran’s influence on Riyadh’s terms, and those who think that the United States together with its allies must use pressure to undermine Iran’s influence in the Middle East. However, the Saudi strategy and tactic of preventing Iran from strengthening its influence are fraught with risks. Washington’s current priorities include the prevention of a big bang in the region. This is a temporary success, if at all, in that a lasting settlement has been postponed for later. The Trump administration’s interference late last week prevented the worst possible scenario, because ever since Hariri announced his resignation while in Riyadh, Washington was only talking about the possibility of Israel’s war against Hezbollah with support from and coordination by Saudi Arabia.

Secretary Tillerson’s harsh warning of November 10 has prevented the developments from taking a military turn. He expressed support for Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, called on all parties within and outside Lebanon to respect its position, as well as issued a US warning of any activities that can contribute to instability in Lebanon.

The US official also said that there is no legitimate place in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state.

Tillerson’s statement came in stark contrast to the US administration’s silence, which lasted for a few days after Hariri announced his resignation. It looked as if the Secretary of State, who was accompanying President Trump on a tour of Asia, felt the need to make this statement so as to prevent developments that could have faced Washington with an accomplished fact that contradicts its policy.

Some people believe that a plan has been put into motion to return Hariri to Lebanon, and that Hariri’s interview with the Al Mustaqbal satellite television station, which he owns, has become the first step along this path. Analysts have taken Hariri’s words about his returning to Lebanon seriously but with reserve. A statement by the US Department of State envisions similar developments.

At this point, France decided to step in. President Emmanuel Macron went to Riyadh to have a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and to demand that he settle the Lebanese crisis. Informed diplomatic sources say that France has been disappointed by President Macron’s visits to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to the French president, Abu Dhabi does not want to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, while Prince Mohammad bin Salman is not interested in mediating on behalf of France.

According to European diplomatic sources, the information available to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian points to Riyadh’s unwillingness to see Hariri as the prime minister of Lebanon. This is why the French minister went to Riyadh on November 15.

This information shows the following.

Firstly, that the French see that any continued pressure can only result in Hariri’s return to Beirut to confirm his resignation as prime minister, after his trip to France and the decision to quit the political stage. At the same time, Paris will accept his decision to return back to Beirut and his resignation as well as they will give him the mandate to form a new government that should rule the country until a political settlement is achieved.

Secondly, Riyadh is seriously disappointed with Saad Hariri. They believe that he has violated his commitments and do not accept his explanation of inability to stand up against Hezbollah.

Thirdly, the Saudis are convinced that Hariri is too weak to be able to protect their interests in Lebanon or to honor his commitments. They fear that back in Beirut he will go back on his promises and resume his powers as prime minister without changing anything. This is why Riyadh is looking for a replacement for Hariri and has started reshuffling his team.

The above shows that Hariri’s return back to Lebanon will not end the crisis but will only aggravate it and will complicate the situation in Lebanon still further. In accordance with its new position, Saudi Arabia has opted for a policy of blockade to prevent a military solution. Observers do not rule out that the weapons used against Qatar may also be used against Lebanon.

It should be said in this context that Rex Tillerson’s statement did not mention any illegitimate interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon or the unnatural position of the Lebanese prime minister in Saudi Arabia. Washington’s disregard for this fact is evidence of US support for the interests of Saudi Arabia and gives the United States an opportunity to raise this question once again. It is an open secret in Washington that Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been trying to undermine Iran’s influence in the region. Unable to take the necessary steps to stop the Yemeni war, Washington has decided to focus on aggravating tension in Lebanon in order to create an anti-Iranian front there. However, it appears that the US plan has failed, and all the efforts taken in this sphere have only delayed a Lebanese explosion. As a result, speculations regarding the escalation of tension in Lebanon have abated.

It can be that the US administration intends to deal with the Saudi crisis over Lebanon in the same manner it acted with regard to the blockade of Qatar, when it suspended rather than stopped the process. The only difference in the case of Lebanon is that Israel is a party to the conflict even though it is not directly involved yet. The Trump administration can use this fact to confront Iran by confronting its allies in the region.

A major element of the Lebanese crisis is expectations of Hariri’s return back to Beirut and the subsequent developments. However, it is also clear that Riyadh will continue to put pressure on Lebanon into making a choice between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s influence represented by Hezbollah.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.