The snap resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri over the weekend reflects a push by Saudi Arabia to openly confront Iran, its longtime regional adversary, and Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, analysts say.
It will also likely plunge Lebanon into a fresh political quagmire, as the country’s fragile coalition government suffers a severe blow and general elections set for May appear increasingly uncertain.
Joseph Bahout, a visiting fellow with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been building for some time, and the Saudis have recently shown “a will [to confront] Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon”.
Hariri, a Lebanese Sunni politician and longtime ally of the Gulf kingdom, announced his resignation from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on Saturday.
In a televised speech, Hariri said he believed he faced threats to his life.
He called out Iran for sowing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon, and criticised Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and armed resistance movement allied with Tehran, for building “a state within a state”.
“I say to Iran and its allies – you have lost in your efforts to meddle in the affairs of the Arab world,” Hariri said, adding that the region “will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off.”
Questions over Saudi’s role
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed last June, has recently taken a harsher line on Iran.
The long-standing power struggle between the two regional rivals has been playing out in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting with Iran’s backing alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and in Yemen.
“The Saudis feel that it’s time for them to be much more aggressive against what they perceive or describe as Iran’s expansion in the region,” Bahout told Al Jazeera. “The new thing is that they have decided to throw Lebanon into this kind of fire.”
Saudi Arabia, however, has denied being behind Hariri’s resignation.
Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan told Lebanese television station LBC on Saturday that it was entirely Hariri’s decision to step down.
Nonetheless, the resignation comes amid increasingly hostile rhetoric from Sabhan himself, who recently posted several tweets condemning Hezbollah, which he described as a “terrorist” force.
“Those who cooperate and work with it politically, economically and through the media should be punished,” Sabhan wrote on October 26. “There should be serious work to curb it internally and externally and to confront it with force.”
Hariri’s resignation speech mirrored Sabhan’s language. And just days earlier, on October 31, Hariri posted a photo to Twitter of himself with Sabhan, captioned: “Long meeting with His Excellency my friend Thamer al-Sabhan.”
Tawfiq Shuman, a Lebanese journalist and analyst, told Al Jazeera Arabic that, because Hariri delivered his statement from Riyadh, “he had to use the same tone and language the kingdom uses when speaking about Hezbollah.”
This language “is one of war, military and confrontation”, Shuman said.
Bahout maintained that Saudi Arabia appears to be behind Hariri’s decision to resign, noting that the Saudis would not have made such a move unless they felt they had the blessing of the United States, another longtime ally.
“They feel the climate is right now,” Bahout said. “In the longer run, I think the real question is, how far are the Saudis willing to go? What’s their aim?”
In recent months, the Trump administration has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah, which the US has listed as a “terrorist” group since the late 1990s. US President Donald Trump has also spoken out against Iran and the nuclear deal signed between Tehran and Western nations.
Last month, the US Congress unanimously approved additional sanctions on Hezbollah and foreign states that support the group.
Israel also used Hariri’s resignation as an opportunity to speak out against Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted late Saturday that the resignation was “a wakeup call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon”.
The resignation comes amid “a very heightened, anti-Hezbollah discourse”, said Carmen Geha, an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah is expected to comment on Hariri’s resignation on Sunday.
Geha told Al Jazeera that she expects Nasrallah’s speech to accuse Hariri of defecting to the Saudis and to proclaim the importance of Hezbollah’s role in the region. “I don’t think it is going to be conciliatory at all,” she said.
What are the next steps?
Internally, Bahout said Hariri’s resignation plunges Lebanon into what could be “a very long governmental crisis”. General elections are set for next May, but a vote would be unlikely to go ahead if a government is not in place, he said.
Officially, Lebanese President Michel Aoun must accept Hariri’s resignation.
Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, will then be tasked with appointing a new prime minister, who, under Lebanon’s sectarian political system, must be a Sunni Muslim.
However, that will be far from easy, as the Hariri-led coalition government was put in place last year after several years of political deadlock in Lebanon.
Geha told Al Jazeera that while the Lebanese cabinet can continue on an operational basis, it appears more likely that the Lebanese political system “will go into complete paralysis”.
“Either there will be an indication of a will to have a minimum of socioeconomic stability at least, or not, which I feel is more likely,” said Geha, who added that she expected political polarisation to deepen as a result of Hariri’s resignation.
Geha said there is no lack of Lebanese Sunni politicians who can replace Hariri, but if his resignation is tied to Saudi Arabia, a regional consensus over a potential successor may be necessary.
“I think this time, it will be difficult” to replace the prime minister, she said. “If this is Saudi-led … it will take a lot of regional consensus-building.”
Additional reporting by Zena Tahhan