The Saudi-Lebanon feud, explained

In its bid to win the proxy war with Iran, Saudi might have just thrown Lebanon under the bus.

Saudi King Salman, right, meets with outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (CREDIT: Saudi Press Agency, via AP)
Saudi King Salman, right, meets with outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (CREDIT: Saudi Press Agency, via AP)

In what can only be described as a fevered flurry of activity, the ruler of Saudi Arabia over the weekend ordered the mass arrests of senior princes, political loyalists, and businessmen, accusing them of “corruption.” In an unmistakable bid to centralize his power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) had 49 people arrested early Sunday morning and held at a posh hotel pending “a firm application of justice.”

“The whole thing is really quite strange — this is an act of cleaning house, domestically, that we have never seen before in the history of Saudi Arabia. But there’s a logic to the madness,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University. “Basically, MBS is getting rid of everybody who was a potential or possible rival.”

But the arrests are just one element of what is shaping up to be an aggressive Saudi campaign to exert power in the region. While in Riyadh on a visit, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on television on Saturday, over what he said was Iran’s influence in his country. Iran, Saudi’s bête noire, backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah government and forces in the religiously diverse country, where the prime minister must be Sunni. The president, Michel Aoun, is a Maronite Christian who has the backing of  the Shia-driven Hezbollah party.

Now, the Saudi government charges that Hezbollah is “declaring war” on it. According to Reuters, in a vague statement to Al-Arabiya TV, Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said that Hariri “had been told that acts of ‘aggression’ by Hezbollah ‘were considered acts of a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia by Lebanon and by the Lebanese Party of the Devil.'”

Supported by the Saudi government, Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, accused Iran over the weekend of setting up a “state within a state” in Lebanon, and in his brief resignation speech warned, “I want to tell Iran and its followers that they are losing in their interferences in the Arab nation affairs. Our nation will rise just as it did before and the hands that want to harm it will be cut.” He also alluded to an assassination plot against him. His father, late Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated in Lebanon in 2005; Hezbollah has been blamed for his murder but rejects any responsibility for it.

Boroujerdi told ThinkProgress that he has been in touch with people close to Aoun who have denied that there’s any kind of Hezbollah plot against Hariri.

“Anyone who knows anything about Lebanon knows that if Hezbollah wanted you dead, you would be dead, no matter where you are in the country,” he said.

To say that Hariri’s resignation was unexpected is an understatement.

“The resignation itself was a surprise, even to Hariri,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy analysis, research and programs at The Middle East Institute. Salem was in Lebanon last week and met with people in Hariri’s circle. “There was no notion of him resigning until he was summoned back to Saudi Arabia in the middle of last week and ended up resigning.

“The political position that Saudi is taking, which was expressed in his letter of resignation, was not a surprise. Saudi Arabia has been very clear, particularly with President Trump’s international visit there, with the very strong language against Iran and Iran’s proxies, that Trump and the Saudis used in Riyadh at the time,” said Salem.

The exact reason for the timing of the resignation is unclear, though fascinating. It could be as straightforward, as “Pushing back on Iran’s influence in Lebanon is part of the new strategy,” as Salem put it. But, he notes, Hariri’s business associates in Saudi Arabia had also been in trouble, and it’s possible that being forced to resign is simply the product of Hariri being swept up in what is called an “anti-corruption” sweep in Saudi. These things, said Salem, are “neither clear nor confirmed.” There’s even speculation that Hariri might not be allowed to leave the country.

Reuters reports that Saudi denies preventing Hariri from leaving, although there are more arrests to come, with the country’s attorney general referring to Sunday’s arrests as “phase one” of the purge.

“Hariri is a Saudi citizen, his been involved in lot of business deals and some of his friends have been jailed or are dead,” said Salem. “With the timing of this, we don’t know if this was really, exclusively, a geopolitical Iran-related move, or was it just announced that way but has more on an internal, Saudi-related, crackdown dynamic to it,” he said. “Why did it have to happen on the same day? On a weekend?”

The U.S. position on this is unclear, although Trump has declared himself a staunch Saudi ally, and might well support Hariri’s resignation. This weekend’s events put the rather baffling joint press conference held by Hariri and President Donald Trump in July into sharp focus. That’s where Trump painted Hezbollah as the enemy of the Lebanese people as an expressionless Hariri gripped the podium. Hezbollah is a political party that dominates the country’s cabinet. Trump also failed to note that Hezbollah’s military arm plays a key role in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) at the country’s borders with Syria.

“The real dynamic is that the Iranians and their proxies and allies have been dominating Lebanon for many years, and they’ve been using force to ensure that domination…the big contest in Syria showed what they’re willing to do to maintain their hold,” said Salem, referring to the role Iran and Hezbollah play in supporting Syrian government troops there.

“I think this part of an an escalating war of words between the Saudis and the Iranians, really instigated by Saudi Arabia, but unfortunately [for the Saudis] I don’t think they’re really as strategic as the Iranians are in terms of making these moves of the chessboard of the Middle East,” said Boroujerdi.

“In terms of Lebanon, for example: All right, so you’ve asked Hariri to resign. Now what? How are you going to be able to undermine the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon? I don’t see that kind of endgame for the Saudis in Lebanon,” said Boroujerdi.

Saudi’s other proxy fights with Iran have not gone according to plan. The so-called “Gulf Crisis,” which has seen Saudi Arabia lead a diplomatic coalition against Qatar, cutting off the country’s borders and airspace in bid to make it comply with a list of demands (among them: distancing itself from Iran), hasn’t seen any solution. The other proxy war, in Yemen, has not been going smoothly for Saudi — Iran has been backing Houthi rebels there, and on Monday, Saudi announced it would be closing land and sea ports to stop the flow of weapons from Iran.

In Lebanon, “sacking” Hariri was Saudi’s only move, said Boroujerdi, who added that it’s unlikely that Saudi has any long-term plans for Lebanon. “So the miscalculations that we’ve seen in Yemen and Qatar seem to have repeated themselves in the case of Hariri’s resignation in Lebanon,” said Boroujerdi, who foresees Saudi’s next steps being more arrests in Saudi and possibly in Bahrain, where the government routinely cracks down on the Shia opposition they accuse of having ties to Iran.

On Saturday — just hours before the crackdown/purge, the same day as Hariri’s resignation — Saudi forces intercepted a Houthi missile north of Riyadh. Saudi officials blamed Iran, calling it a potential “act of war,” with Iranian authorities rejecting the accusation as “irresponsible” and “provocative.”

The worry in Saudi has been, said Salem, that with Iran and Hezbollah “emerging victorious” from Syria, they might pivot back to Lebanon to “further nail down and fully control it.”

With Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia is signalling that it will no longer provide Hezbollah with the veneer of having a pro-Saudi, pro-western prime minister such as Hariri. This, said Salem, exposes Lebanon to a number of risks — anything from new anti-Hezbollah sanctions to another war with Israel (which enthusiastically supported Hariri’s statements over the weekend, calling it a “wake up call”).

“What we’re seeing emerging here is sort of a triangle of U.S.-Israel-Saudi Arabia increasing the pressure or the volume of denounciation on Iran, and they can definitely refer to Hariri’s resignation as a case in point,” said Boroujerdi. Iranians, he said, are unlikely to overreact and be drawn into any kind of new conflict.

But that doesn’t mean that Iran will ignore this shot across the bow.

“The Iranians and Hezbollah are very unhappy about what just happened, and very worried, because indeed, having a pro-western prime minister gives them more cover,” said Salem. (Iranian media has referred to the weekend’s events as the “1st phase of Saudi Zionist plot against Lebanon”). Political turmoil within Lebanon or a new fight with Israel is “bad news” — for Iran and Lebanon.

“At a minimum, this throws Lebanon into a governance [and] constitutional crisis — the prime minister has resigned, the president has not accepted his resignation…how is the government going to function,” he said, noting that the spring 2018 parliamentary elections are now unlikely to happen. “In terms of bigger risks, it’s too early to say that big stuff is going to happen, but it’s clearly put Lebanon back in the crosshairs of a country which is going to be contested, regionally,” said Salem.