Saudi Arabia has called a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss “Iran’s disruptive politics” in the region. This comes after the rather flimsy resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who announced that he was stepping down when he was in Riyadh, not Beirut. What’s more, Yemeni officials have told Associated Press that Saudi Arabia has blocked Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, his sons, ministers and military officials, from going home for months now. Enmity between Hadi and the United Arab Emirates has been widely reported; the restrictions placed on his movements are believed to have much to do with this.
Such actions — calling a meeting of such significance in a foreign country; “forcing” the resignation of a Prime Minister of a sovereign state whilst he is in your country; and preventing an internationally-recognised President of Yemen and his entourage from leaving your country — all reflect the new politics within Saudi Arabia.
When Hariri resigned two weeks ago, Lebanon’s opposition Hezbollah immediately claimed that he had been coerced into the move by Saudi Arabia. These claims were repeated by a number of social and political stakeholders in Lebanon, including Hariri’s own party, the Future Movement. The President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, refused to accept Hariri’s resignation.
However, Hariri has repudiated claims that he was detained and held against his will by the Saudis. He has issued statements undertaking to return to Lebanon soon, and has just held talks in Paris with the French President, Emmanuel Macron.
Hariri’s resignation coincided with the detention by the Saudis of dozens of prominent figures, including princes, politicians and businessmen, on corruption charges. The arrests extended across borders, with Saudi-Ethiopian business tycoon Mohammed Al-Amoudi among those held.
Businessman Hariri’s company, Saudi Oger, has been in financial difficulties for months. In 2016 it failed to pay thousands of its employees in the Kingdom and left bills worth millions of dollars unpaid as it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. The Saudi Arabian government eventually intervened as the company’s plight worsened, in order to avoid diplomatic embarrassment. According to the Hindustan Times in August 2016, the Saudi ambassador in New Delhi promised that “all workers affected by the Saudi Oger affair would be fed, have papers arranged and would be flown back to India, if required, at the expense of the Saudi government.” The company’s financial woes resulted in Hariri becoming a client of the government in Riyadh, to whom he allegedly owes billions of dollars. As he holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, many observers doubt if Hariri will escape an indictment for corruption: “His wealth qualifies him for indictment like all of the others who are currently detained.”
Saad Hariri is perhaps the most valuable “detainee” as far as the Saudis, and perhaps the Israelis, are concerned. His accusation that Hezbollah and Iran are trying to destabilise Lebanon is a key factor when trying to understand the current political fiasco, for it is a pretext for yet another war in Lebanon. This would serve Israel as it seeks to push back Hezbollah’s political gains and accumulated infrastructure in its northern neighbour. Hezbollah has been gaining ground and entrenching itself as the most organised political movement in Lebanon. While Israel understands that it will never completely wipe it out, it could at least weaken it.
The secret visit of US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser Jared Kushner to Saudi Arabia last month was no coincidence. Furthermore, the confirmation by an Israeli official that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has secretly visited Tel Aviv adds credence to speculation that the plans to destabilise Lebanon were carefully vetted and agreed by the USA and Israel.
Any plan to attack Hezbollah couldn’t be realised without the involvement of Hariri; his claims about the movement and Iran provide a perfect pretext for an attack. Saudi Arabia, though, underestimated the political astuteness of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. In his carefully crafted speeches, Nasrallah has called for Lebanese unity and avoided divisive rhetoric. In short, “he became a leader for all.” Indeed, his speeches prompted similar pronouncement by the leaders of Hariri’s Future Movement, placing the blame on Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and its allies overestimated the schism and enmity between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon. The Saudi claim about being the “custodian of Sunni Islam” received a massive blow when Lebanese Sunnis declared loud and clear, “You do not represent us.” Another factor was also overlooked; the people of Lebanon of all backgrounds are simply war fatigued; they refuse to be willing pawns in Saudi Arabia’s egotistical game. The flimsiness of Riyadh in this political stalemate gives the advantage to Iran.
This has been a bad week for Saudi Arabia. It is failing to win over public opinion about its war in Yemen, which is attracting a barrage of criticism. The mass detention of prominent Saudi citizens has been denounced as a witch-hunt, and Riyadh is also fending-off criticism of its political, social and economic blockade of the State of Qatar and the consequent crisis in the Gulf.
If Saad Hariri withdraws his resignation and returns to Lebanon, he will be weaker but more determined than ever to serve Saudi Arabia. Should he decide to stick by his resignation and leave the government in Beirut, he might pave the way for his brother Bahaa, a strong Saudi ally, to take over the leadership of the Future Movement. This, though, might be thwarted by the rise of Ashraf Rifi, a Sunni politician who resigned as Justice Minister and has since challenged Hariri’s political dominance in Sunni politics in Lebanon. This chaos hasn’t run its course yet, by any means.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.