Saudi minister of state for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan has become a household name in Lebanon.
Two days later, then Prime Minister Saad Hariri tweeted a selfie with “his excellency and friend” al-Sabhan in Riyadh. The latter reciprocated by praising the “long and fruitful meeting with my brother that led to an agreement on many issues that are of interest to the good Lebanese people. God willing, what is coming is better”.
Little did the Lebanese people know that “what is coming” would be the resignation of their prime minister, who headed a government supposed to be “regaining the trust” of its people. Hariri’s cabinet was part of a settlement that saw General Michel Aoun elected president, ending a two-year political deadlock in Lebanon.
اجتماع طويل مع معالي الصديق ثامر السبهان pic.twitter.com/vDCnsKuzHs
— Saad Hariri (@saadhariri) October 31, 2017
Hariri politically ‘abducted’?
On November 4, Saad Hariri announced his surprise resignation on Al-Arabiya channel, speaking from Riyadh rather than Beirut.
There was obviously no subtlety in the choice of location and what it meant in terms of Saudi Arabia‘s role in the decision.
The surprise resignation, coupled with reports of a crackdown on several ministers and princes in the kingdom, led some Twitter users to joke about Hariri’s “abduction” calling on him to “blink twice if you want us to save you”.
Wiam Wahhab, a Druze pro-Hezbollah politician called for the Lebanese state to do what it can to ensure Hariri’s “safe return” to Beirut.
To be fair, Hariri yesterday spoke of threats to his life and an environment similar to the one in 2005, the dark year his father was assassinated triggering a series of targeted killings of politicians and journalists. It is worth noting that the Internal Security Forces denied reports about a botched assassination attempt against Hariri prior to his travel to Riyadh.
Now Hariri’s resignation may well be a calculated political move aiming to boost his standing in the eyes of his constituency, as having stood up to Hezbollah.
But there is also a very good chance that this move is part of the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has dragged in Lebanon, as well.
A cold war in the Middle East
Yesterday on Kalam al-Nass, Lebanon’s premier political talk show, Sabhan claimed that there is no difference between Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. In response to the host’s question on whether there will be a broad anti-terrorism international coalition against Hezbollah, he said that the roots of terrorism lie within the Islamic Republic of Iran alone.
Riyadh has officially declared war on Hezbollah with al-Sabhan noting that there is no room for a “terrorist organisation” in Lebanon’s government signalling that there will be no “Sunni” legitimacy for any government that includes Hezbollah ministers in the future.
In other words, President Aoun will need a lot of patience and creativity in order to secure a second government during his presidency.
The reason is that the Constitution states: “There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence”. This has been interpreted as the need for all religious groups to be represented in government for any authority to possess constitutional legitimacy within Lebanon’s confessional system. Hariri’s opponents used this argument in November 2006 when the government at that time was deemed unconstitutional after the resignation of the Shia ministers.
Now Saudi Arabia’s role is only half the story. The other half is the ever-growing Iranian influence in Lebanon and the presence of an armed party that openly pledges allegiance to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader.
Hezbollah’s decision to enter the Syrian conflict was seen by many as the inability of the Lebanese state to control major foreign policy and military decisions, allowing the armed party to cement its “state within a state”.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani added oil to the fire two weeks ago when trying to bolster his internal positioning vis-a-vis hardliners he blasted “imperialism” and America’s arrogance and spoke of Iran’s greatness as being “more than at any other time”.
He didn’t stop there, unfortunately.
Rouhani went on to say: “In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, northern Africa, in the Persian Gulf region – where can action be taken without Iran?”
Obviously, this did not go down well in Lebanon. Ever since the political settlement on the presidency, Hariri has been facing fierce criticism of his “surrender” to Iranian hegemony.
Hariri flatly denied such accusations and claimed he was only acting in Lebanon’s interest and stability. In a recent interview, his adviser Okab Sakr passionately defended Hariri’s achievements saying any talk of “Sunni frustration” is out of place.
Yet, clearly, there must have been some perceptions of frustration in Riyadh, where Hariri’s decisions are now taken. And clearly, the resignation is a direct response to Rouhani’s claims of having a monopoly over decision-making in Lebanon.
Israel and Trump
Lebanon has long been the stage for the Iranian-Saudi regional cold war. But what makes this round of the fight special?
It is at this point no secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia are adopting an almost identical approach to the region following the dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
To both, Iran presents an “existential threat” and countering its expansion is their number one priority.
In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised cooperation with Arab countries saying: “it is much larger than any other period in Israel’s history. It’s a huge change.” In a speech to Chatham House last Friday, he said: “The good guys are getting together with Israel in a new way, forming an effective alliance to counter the aggression of Iran.”
For Netanyahu, Hariri’s resignation and statements are “a wake-up call for the international community to act against Iranian aggression”.
The escalation in Lebanon has also been fuelled by the fact that the Trump administration has shown to be much more receptive of Saudi and Israeli demands than Obama’s.
Talk of scrapping the nuclear deal and an increased concentration of efforts to target and sanction Hezbollah has created a context in which a confrontation in Lebanon is becoming increasingly likely.
And as researcher Joseph Bahout recently noted: “Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now seeking ways to compensate for the loss of Syria as a place where they could defy and bleed Iran … If ever they seek to rebalance the regional relationship with Tehran in the Levant, the only place to do so would be Lebanon, despite the many risks that would accompany such an effort.”
Only de-escalation can save Lebanon
Seeking to capitalise on regional and international efforts to curb Hezbollah’s growing influence, Hariri and other Sunni leaders might end up driving the country back into an abyss of Sunni-Shia escalation and another violent conflict.
Cornering Hezbollah through regional and international pressure or an Israeli war will not do anything good for the country. This is especially true because Hezbollah thrives in an atmosphere of “us against the world”. Apart from the fact that they are the only armed and trained political party in the country with experience of fighting Israel and a civil war in Syria.
At the same time, Hezbollah would do well to remember that one reason Saudi Arabia has supporters in Lebanon is because the party affords itself an armed wing.
The threats of “cutting the hands” of whoever wants to call for disarming Hezbollah is not winning hearts and minds in Lebanon. And putting the thorny issue of Hezbollah’s weapons back on the table of a potential “national dialogue” is equally important to de-escalate rising tensions.
Of course, it is too soon to tell what Hariri’s resignation will mean for Lebanon. In the meantime, non-aligned Lebanese citizens can only hope for the day when both Saudi Arabia and Iran cease their interference in their country’s affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.