What will Hariri's shock resignation mean for Lebanon?

What will Hariri's shock resignation mean for Lebanon?
Comment: The resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri is the latest escalation in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, writes Henri Mamarbachi.
8 min read
07 Nov, 2017
Hariri, whose father was assassinated, said that he feared for his life [Anadolu]
The resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, announced on Saturday from Riyadh, is the latest episode in the tale of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia that are affecting the whole of the Middle East. 

Lebanon has so far been relatively successful in shielding itself against the fallout from the Syrian crisis. It may now be at risk of plunging into instability, even conflict.

For the last year Lebanon has been fragile but relatively peaceful. Surrounded by the instability and violence that is shaking the Arab world, it could have done without another crisis of its own. Alas, this weekend brought the surprise news of the resignation of its Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. A shock announcement, underscored with menace.

Saad's speech had the effect of dynamite in a country that is unfortunately no stranger to lethal explosions. Words could prove to be even more dangerous than the most formidable weapons, especially for a small country routinely manhandled by two powerful adversaries: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

Hariri announced his resignation on the morning of Saturday 5 November during a visit to Saudi Arabia. It was met with general surprise. In his speech, he angrily accused the armed Shia movement Hizballah and its ally, the Iranian state, of having a stranglehold on Lebanon. He added that he feared for his own life.

Since October 2016, Hariri has headed a coalition cabinet in which members of Hizballah and anti-Christian, anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian parties have attempted to work together, under the guidance of the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun.

In Lebanon, where Sunnis and Shias share power with Christians, the tension between these forces is played out more clearly than in any other Arab country

Previously held in contempt, but now accepted by all the parties as a unifying element, he had courted both Tehran -  which has been steadily increasing its influence across Iraq, Lebanon and Syria - and Riyadh, ally of Washington and self-proclaimed centre of the Sunni axis in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, where Sunnis and Shias share power with Christians, the tension between these forces is played out more clearly than in any other Arab country. The war in Syria resulted in a tacit agreement from all sides not to disrupt the internal equilibrium. But the recent successes of the Syrian regime over the uprising supported by the Gulf monarchies seems to have put an end to that precarious stability.

Lebanon now finds itself at the centre of the Iran-Saudi conflict. An increased polarisation of Lebanese society along both political and religious lines will likely result.

'This doesn't feel good'

"This is a political earthquake", a former Lebanese official told Orient XXI. "I don't know if Hariri has a plan for continuing what he's started. If not, it will be a disaster, in particular for him. He already has a reputation for not following through with things. Is he prepared for this fight? I don't know…"

The situation has worrying implications for the economy. Lebanon had begun a difficult process of recovery over the last year, mainly thanks to tourism and the gradual return of market confidence. One economic official was cautiously reassuring: "This doesn't feel good, but in financial terms, it is a manageable crisis."

What will be the end result for Lebanon? Successive defeats of jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq suggest that threat may be weakening.

The King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) receives
Former Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri, who resigned in Riyadh,
on November 06, 2017 [Anadolu]

Why does the situation feel so dangerous?

Though the current crisis had clearly been brewing for sometime, it is too early for more than conjecture. Here are some possible interpretations:

- In a rupture with tradition, Saad Hariri announced his resignation not at home in Lebanon, but during a trip to Saudi Arabia which apparently took place with some urgency, though he had already been there just a few days before. The announcement was made on Saudi television, on the satellite channel Al-Arabiya, one of the Saudi Kingdom's principal instruments in its war of information with the Iranian leadership.

The urgency of the announcement suggests the head of the Lebanese government could not (perhaps for security reasons?) or did not want to wait until his return to Beirut, where neither his colleagues nor President Michel Aoun seem to have had any idea what he was planning.

- This piece of political theatre casts suspicion on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (or MBS) as the architect and controller of events. MBS has just cemented his power by ridding himself of Prince Miteb, head of the National Guard and son of the former King Abdallah, who was amongst dozens of princes and businessmen arrested last weekend for alleged corruption.

Saad Hariri read his declaration sitting behind a desk, next to a Lebanese flag. His Lebanese detractors say this made him look like a puppet of the Saudi administration.

Read more: Lebanese despair as Beirut 'declares war' on Riyadh

- Hariri's trip to Saudi Arabia took place only a few hours after a visit to Beirut by the advisor to the Iranian supreme leader of the revolution, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former minister of foreign affairs and an important figure in the Iranian regime.

Valayati met with the Lebanese president, the chief of Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah (whose militias have become strategic allies of Bashar al-Assad's regime), and Hariri. The Iranian emissary praised the "stability of Lebanon" in spite of its "internal differences".

Did Velayati also transmit a message to the Saudi leaders via Saad Hariri? Hariri's hasty departure from Beirut suggests that as a possibility, though nothing has emerged to confirm it as yet.

The war of influence between Tehran and Riyadh

- Hariri's strong words will add fuel to the flames of the Iran-Saudi conflict, already being played out in Syria, Iraq and most recently within the Gulf states themselves in the form of their deteriorating relationship with Qatar. 

Hariri said "Iran has a stranglehold on the fate of all the countries in the region… Hizballah is the instrument of Iran, not just in Lebanon, but in the other Arab countries too." He accused Tehran of "creating a state within a state", an allusion to Hizballah's powerful armed militias, and of wanting to "have the last word on Lebanese affairs".

These views are shared by one section of the Lebanese population and correspond exactly with the opinion held by Riyadh and Washington.

Hariri continued: "In recent decades, Hizballah has imposed its will as a fait accompli through the force of its arms." 

Hariri served a previous term as prime minister, from 2009-2011. In that year, his government was toppled by the "Party of God" [Hizballah], following the resignation of his ministers.

Hariri was forced to leave the country. His return in June 2016 put an end to years of instability, in which Lebanon felt like a dormant volcano on the frontier of a Syria erupting in fire and bloodshed. 

- Hariri's statement that he feared his own assassination ("I feel they are plotting in the shadows against my life") raised the spectre of the political assassinations that have punctuated the Lebanese crisis over the last few decades.

It implied a belief that the country is living through a time similar to that which preceded the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafic Hariri, also a former prime minister, killed while Damascus reigned over Lebanon. Four members of Hizballah were implicated in the murder. 

In the shadow of the Saudi Godfather

In his diatribe, Hariri addressed Iran directly: "I want to say to Iran and its vassals that it will not succeed in interfering in the affairs of this Arab nation… our nation will bounce back… and we will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to jeopardise that."

Tehran immediately denied any interference in the country's affairs, calling Hariri's words "baseless accusations".

But there is no doubt that the war in Syria - in which Hizballah's role was fundamental to the victorious advances of the regime - and the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have accentuated the fractures in Lebanon.

The phrase "cut off the hand" used by Hariri in Riyadh is an ominous echo of the threat issued in Damascus by Assad if his father if Rafik Hariri refused to obey his directives. That threat was followed by Rafik Hariri's still unsolved murder.

'A cancer in the Arab body'

In fact, Iran currently seems fully prepared to interfere in the affairs of its Arab neighbours. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani recently asserted that "the importance of the Iranian nation in the region is stronger than at any other time."

He went so far as to warn those attempting to resist his "influence".

Iranian militias are now present throughout the region, most notably in Iraq and Syria.

Will Israel take advantage of the rupture between the prime minister and the Shia party to launch a military operation against the ever-present and powerful Hizballah?

A few hours after Hariri's declarations, the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, appeared on an Arab TV channel attacking Hizballah. He referred to its "diabolical militia" and called it "a cancer in the Arab body as bad as Islamic State". He added "this cancer is trying to destabilise Lebanon, to isolate it from its Arab context and to harm its economy".

Will Hariri now return to Lebanon? Is an alternative political solution possible? Will foreign ministries mobilise and manage to avoid the worst repercussions? Will Israel take advantage of the rupture between the prime minister and the Shia party to launch a military operation against the ever-present and powerful Hizballah?

These questions are unanswerable at present, but the situation was summarised in a tweet by the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt: "Lebanon is too small and vulnerable to support a burden of this size. I continue to appeal for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A former journalist with AFP, Mamarbachi was head of section in Beirut and Rabat, as well as the economic and political service at the agency. 

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.