Saudi-Iranian conflict wreaking havoc in Lebanon

Saudi-Iranian conflict wreaking havoc in Lebanon
© Getty Images

Lebanon is used to lurching from one crisis to another, but the political drama that has unfolded in Riyadh, Beirut and Paris the past two weeks is unprecedented even for this tiny Mediterranean country and could yet herald a protracted political battle as Lebanon is dragged into the simmering regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister who resigned so dramatically and unexpectedly on Nov. 4, arrived in Paris Saturday having spent the past two weeks in what many in Lebanon believed was de facto "house arrest" in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.


Hariri is said to be planning to return to Lebanon in time for the country’s independence day parade on Wednesday. But it is unclear whether he will continue to play a political role as prime minister and leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community or whether Lebanon is about to witness the demise of the Hariri dynasty, which has dominated much of the country’s political scene since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.


Hariri became prime minister, for a second time, a year ago, heading a coalition government which also grouped members of Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-supported Shia militia and political party, to which Hariri is a rival. Since then, Lebanon enjoyed a period of relative calm. Bills were passed, an electoral law signed and a date set for parliamentary polls next year (the first since 2009).

However, Hariri’s consensual approach toward Hezbollah — which he repeatedly insisted was for the benefit of Lebanon’s stability — clearly was not welcomed by the Saudi leadership, particularly the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia has viewed with rising alarm Iran’s spreading influence across the region with Hezbollah serving as a core enabler for the Islamic Republic. The Shia militia plays battlefield roles in Syria and Iraq, defending the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and assisting in the war against the Islamic State, respectively.

Hezbollah’s leaders have admitted to the group’s roles in Syria and Iraq but continue to deny involvement in Yemen’s brutal war where a Saudi-led coalition is seeking to defeat Iran-backed Houthi tribesmen. Hezbollah is allegedly providing military assistance to the Houthis.

Hariri, who holds Saudi as well as French citizenship, was unceremoniously summoned to Riyadh on Nov. 3. The next morning, looking ill at ease and reading from a sheet of paper, Hariri announced his resignation and, using uncharacteristically blunt language, lambasted Hezbollah and Iran and claimed that he feared for his life.

If the Saudis believed that Hariri’s resignation would catalyze Lebanon’s Sunnis to direct their anger against Hezbollah, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, there was a collective sense of outrage at Hariri’s public humiliation in Riyadh that cut across sectarian lines.

Even Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, sounded sympathetic toward Hariri’s plight. Posters of Hariri sprang up across Beirut inscribed with “We are with you." Participants in the Beirut Marathon a week ago carried placards demanding the return of their prime minister.

Michel Aoun, the Lebanese president and ally of Hezbollah, said that the Saudis had “detained” Hariri. Ambassadors of European countries queued up in Riyadh to meet with Hariri and find out what was going on. French President Emmanuel Macron flew to the kingdom and invited Hariri to visit Paris in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

On Nov. 12, Hariri, in a live television interview, dialled back some of his former harsh rhetoric and said he could withdraw his resignation if Hezbollah agreed to abide by Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the conflicts ravaging the region, essentially calling on the Shia group to pull out of Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

So where does Lebanon go from here? The scale of Hariri’s room for manouver is dependent on what leeway Mohammed Bin Salman is willing to grant him. He could simply submit his resignation and depart Lebanon and end his political career.

That would leave Lebanon likely facing a prolonged political impasse with no credible Sunni wanting to incur Saudi wrath by accepting the role of premier (which by long-standing tradition is reserved for the Sunni sect). A Sunni ally of Hezbollah, someone, therefore, less concerned about the views of Riyadh, could be appointed, but that would only harden Saudi hostility toward Lebanon.

Hariri could follow through on his recent hint that he would reverse his resignation if Hezbollah agrees to withdraw its forces from across the region. That would be a non-starter for Hezbollah, however. In any event, it would be difficult for Hezbollah to agree to pull its forces out of Yemen when it has repeatedly denied any role in the embattled country’s war.

Many Lebanese fear that Saudi Arabia will exploit the financial weapon against Lebanon to collapse the economy in an attempt to complicate life for Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait and Bahrain, have urged their nationals to depart Lebanon.

Riyadh could withdraw its funds from the Lebanese banking system and encourage its Gulf allies to do the same. Tens of thousands of Lebanese live and work in the kingdom, their salaries providing an important source of remittances to their families in Lebanon, which could be jeopardized if the Saudis decide to expel them.

If that policy was to extend to other Gulf countries where an estimated 500,000 Lebanese work, the economic loss could be disastrous.

Comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir on Friday suggested that the kingdom has no intention of backing down from its animosity toward Hezbollah.

“We see Hezbollah hijacking the Lebanese banking system to launder money, we see Hezbollah hijacking Lebanese ports in order to smuggle drugs, we see Hezbollah engaging in terrorist activities and interfering in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen,” he said. “This is not acceptable to us and is not acceptable to the Lebanese.”

The road ahead looks rocky for Lebanon, but it is one along which the Lebanese are well-accustomed to travelling.

Nicholas Blanford is a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon.