What’s next for Lebanon now that Hariri is back?

Lebanese PM Saad Hariri came back home stronger, but Riyadh still casts shadow over his political survival.

Saad al-Hariri who suspended his decision to resign as prime minister gestures to his supporters at his home in Beirut
Saad al-Hariri who suspended his decision to resign as prime minister gestures to his supporters at his home in Beirut on November 22, 2017 [Reuters/Jamal Saidi]

Moments after landing in Beirut on November 21, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited the grave of his late father Rafik. The symbolism of that move, after his enigmatic resignation on November 4, defines the Hariri dynasty that has now survived the 2005 assassination of its founder Rafik and a recent quasi coup attempt against the heir Saad.

That dynasty has been beset in the past few years by its Saudi enabler, dissolving its construction empire and reprimanding its reluctance to confront Hezbollah.

The prime minister’s triumphant return to Beirut followed by the decision to suspend his resignation breathed new life into the Hariri dynasty and the Lebanese oligarchy that embraced Saad. However, containing the long-term repercussions of Lebanon’s latest political turmoil will largely depend on the relation between that dynasty and its enabler. It is a relation shaped by four factors: the shakeup in Saudi politics, the Saudi-Iranian regional enmity, Lebanon’s internal dynamics and the struggle within Hariri’s Future Movement (al-Mustaqbal).

It is now increasingly apparent that Hariri’s abrupt resignation was about Saudi, not Lebanese politics. Riyadh treated Lebanon’s prime minister as a Saudi citizen whose businesses have long been under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s intense scrutiny. What Riyadh will do about Saudi Oger, the construction business empire that Rafik Hariri built, is crucial, as Saad Hariri must secure financial resources to sustain the dynasty and fund his election campaign in Lebanon.

Furthermore, no matter what Saad Hariri will say or do moving forward, the prevailing narrative in Lebanon might continue to be that the new Saudi leadership holds sway over him, whether through his business or immediate family still remaining in the Kingdom.

While disengaging from Saudi Arabia is not an option for the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri won by points against Riyadh. The attempt to transfer leadership to his brother Bahaa failed, the Lebanese government did not fall yet, the Saudi policy suffered a reputational harm in Lebanon while Hariri’s popularity increased and the hawkish Saudi minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan was reportedly removed from handling the Lebanese portfolio.

Al-Sabhan, who went silent after his return from Washington on November 12, was reportedly replaced by a team that includes former Saudi ambassador to Beirut, Ali Awad Assiri, who is on good terms with a wide spectrum of Lebanese politicians. Ultimately, however, Riyadh will decide whether to empower Hariri or not, and what is reasonably expected from him moving forward.

The second factor is the Saudi use of the Iranian threat as a distraction from its domestic turmoil and its genuine frustration with Tehran’s expanding influence in the Levant and Yemen. The US administration looked at the Saudi move in Lebanon as a challenge to its regional approach, the Israeli government has no plans to open a dormant front in south Lebanon to please Riyadh and Iran felt comfortable enough to weather the Saudi surge.

Both Washington and Riyadh are heightening the rhetoric against the Iranian regime. Yet Saudi officials cannot engage in Syria and escalate in Lebanon or ask their major Sunni ally in Beirut to bear alone the burden of confronting and negotiating the Iranian regime.

The third factor is the internal dynamics of Lebanese politics. The Saudi pressure internationalised the situation in Lebanon until further notice, after it was localised in 2014 with the rise of ISIL and the need to take unified action against it. The rare unity of the Lebanese oligarchy thwarted an external attempt to destabilise the country, which reflected a certain maturity of the Lebanese political system.

The question is, once the national unity sentiments wind down in Lebanon, will Hariri join Riyadh’s public campaign against Hezbollah? What kind of electoral alliances will he form? Hariri, who was concerned about holding the legislative elections next May, will most probably be eager now to organise it as soon as possible to capitalise on the latest surge in his popularity.

The last factor is the jockeying inside the Future Movement and Hariri’s inner circle. In the past few years, Hariri faced growing dissent in his movement because of his detente with Hezbollah and his endorsement of General Michel Aoun as president. These voices were hushed when Hariri came to power in December 2016, but they began to emerge again in the weeks prior to Hariri’s attempted resignation.

Known as “al-Sabhan’s men”, these individuals sought to push for a more agressive approach towards Hezbollah wihin the Future Movement. There are speculations that the prime minister might now purge some of his advisors who coordinated with al-Sabhan. This would allow Hariri to have better control over his political movement. If he decides as expected to strengthen the moderate camp, this would mean that he plans to maintain the status quo of his partnership with President Aoun.

It is worth noting that Hariri did not rescind his resignation yet. What he did is basically buy time and space for international mediation to reach a compromise he can sell to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Riyadh has three main demands in exchange for agreeing on Hariri retaining his premiership: one, a clear public statement by Hezbollah that it will pull its fighters out of Syria, Iraq and Yemen; two, the strict adherence to the policy of dissociation that preserves the neutrality of the Lebanese government’s foreign policy; and three, the withdrawal of Hezbollah from the Lebanese cabinet.

President Michel Aoun gave public guarantees that the Lebanese government will remain neutral. The two guiding principles of Lebanon’s policy of dissociation are endorsing the Arab consensus on regional issues and abstaining when Hezbollah is described as a terrorist organisation.

Hezbollah adamantly rejected any Saudi veto on its participation in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hinted on November 20 that the Lebanese group might be ready to withdraw from Iraq, but remained ambiguous about plans for Syria and Yemen.

The current crisis could indeed be a rare opportunity to curb Hezbollah’s inflated regional role. The French government is leading the mediation to reach a political outcome that grants Riyadh a face-saving exit and does not give an impression that Hezbollah has backed away under Saudi pressure. Lebanon, however, is not out of the woods yet, the common interests that currently bind the Lebanese oligarchy might prove once again to be stronger than any external pressure.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.