Lebanon’s PM resigns amid rising Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions

By Hana Kapetanovic

There is a sense of unity in Lebanon, a phrase not often uttered, over the resignation of their Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on November 4th and calls for his return from Saudi Arabia.

From billboards put up around Beirut proclaiming that ‘We are all Saad’, to freesaadharir.com, to a consensus amongst political parties that Hariri must return; the matter has seemed to transcend sectarian lines in an affirmation of national sovereignty. In fact, the first visit to Riyadh by a senior Lebanese official since the crisis has been that of Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, the head of the Lebanese Christian Maronite church.

Suspicions have been widely raised about the legitimacy of Hariri’s resignation speech, with many claiming that it was coerced by Saudi officials. Evidence for this includes that Hariri had important meetings scheduled in Beirut the following Monday, used language that sources close to him insisted was not his own, and that it was given in Riyadh, where he has not yet returned from.

These developments come at a time of great change in Saudi Arabia, initiated by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). He announced his anti-corruption committee on the same day as Hariri announced his resignation and has since had 208 people questioned by Saudi authorities on corruption charges, many of them immediately detained. Though a fight against corruption is something much needed in Saudi Arabia, some argue that this is simply a power grab and a way to defeat any opposition.

Riyadh’s firmer attitude towards Lebanon in terms of Hezbollah undoubtedly is to do with power as it forms part of the ongoing Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry. Although Hariri cited assassination threats as the reason for his resignation in his speech, the bigger message was an anti-Iran and, therefore, an anti-Hezbollah one. The influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon has showed no signs of stopping, something that MBS would like to change.

As the war in Syria gradually nears its end, attention has shifted to questions of regional power and influence over the country in the future. A BBC report claims that Iran is establishing a military base in Syria, which would fit neatly into the arc of influence that Iran is attempting to create. Control in Syria could pave the way for a land corridor through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, where their most powerful regional asset is based – Hezbollah.

This is something that is of concern not only to Saudi Arabia but Israel, another important player in this conflict. Threats from Iran to Israel have often been the most aggressive in the region and so Iran increasing its influence and military power is troubling for Israel, despite being called the ‘most technologically advanced military on earth’.

Hezbollah is particularly powerful in the south of Lebanon where a significant Shiite majority resides – it is also where the border with Israel lies. The tensions between Israel and Lebanon now have been said to be at their highest since the war in 2006. A few months ago, a teacher in Lebanon ominously told me that another war would break out in a month. Although it hasn’t yet, it seems as though it is unavoidably heading in that direction.

Despite the rhetoric of Arab states in opposition to Israel and in support of Palestine, the reality is that these days Arab states aren’t doing much to improve the situation for Palestinians. Historically, Arab states have not recognised Israel, but, trading religious divisions for sectarian ones, this is changing with the seemingly more important threat on the block – Iran.  The Gulf states in particular are increasingly forming ties with Israel, leading Benjamin Netanyahu to proclaim that Israel’s relations with the Arab world were greater than in ‘any other period in Israeli history’.

Of course, we can’t discuss the Middle East without mentioning the role of Western powers, who face the conundrum of simultaneously being allies of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. In attempts to calm the waters, both the US and France have expressed their support for Lebanon’s continuing sovereignty. Considering Trump’s hard-line approach against Iran and re-emphasis of support for Israel, it is not difficult to predict the road which the US will take as the conflict escalates.

Although Hariri’s resignation sparked the current situation, the fact of Hezbollah’s increasing power in Lebanon was never going to go unnoticed by Israel or Saudi Arabia. The landscape of the Middle East has changed – it is no longer simply Arabs versus Israelis. Not only are some of the Arab countries working with Israel, but they are turning on each other too. Qatar, recently alienated by other GCC countries, might even prove a useful ally for Lebanon, according to Robert Fisk. Predictions are therefore hard to make, but the lesson to be learned is that something seemingly as small as the resignation of a Prime Minister might have huge implications on the rest of the Middle East.

Image: Αλέξης Τσίπρας Πρωθυπουργ via flickr 

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