A Month after Hariri Saga, Saudi's Lebanon Move Backfires


A month ago, Saudi Arabia pressured Lebanese premier Saad Hariri to step down in an audacious endeavor to rein in regional rival Iran. But the aftermath brought just the opposite.

Not only did Hariri rescind his resignation on Tuesday, but Riyadh's power play paradoxically led divided Lebanese factions to come together in order to avoid a political breakdown.

The Lebanese cabinet issued a joint statement on Tuesday to reaffirm their commitment to staying out of regional conflicts and apparently put an end to the month-long Hariri saga.

His resignation caught Lebanon and outside countries by surprise, and was seen as a direct result of the escalating power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran that has seen them square off from Syria to Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has supported Hariri for years, hoping he would fight back against what it sees as Iran's main instrument in the region -- Lebanon's armed movement Hizbullah.

But in 2016, a landmark compromise deal in Lebanon cut across those political lines, bringing Hariri in as the head of a government that included Hizbullah ministers.

- 'We will punish Lebanon' -

By the time Hariri's premiership turned a year old, the Saudis had grown exasperated with Hizbullah's growing influence and threatened to push back financially, a source close to the premier said.

"When Hariri travelled to Saudi Arabia (in early November), he got a huge shock," the source said.

"He thought he was going to discuss economic projects. He found himself faced with a list of economic sanctions brandished by the Saudis against Lebanon." 

Riyadh threatened to expel 160,000 Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf and force regional businessmen to withdraw their investments from Lebanon.

"This would have been catastrophic for the country. Hariri had his back up against the wall," the source said.

The 47-year-old premier wrote his own resignation announcement, crafting it in a way he thought would appease the Saudis.

"He was not a prisoner in the literal sense but the Saudis told him, 'if you go back to Lebanon, we'll think of you as Hizbullah, and your government as an enemy,'" the source told AFP.

"They said: 'We will punish Lebanon like Qatar,'" he said, referring to Saudi's months-long land, sea, and air blockade on Qatar.

Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs said Riyadh's plan spectacularly backfired.

"The Saudis wanted to send a powerful message demonstrating their determination to push back on Iran's foray into the Levant," said Bitar. 

"But it produced a real boomerang effect."

- 'Gone too far' -

After his resignation, Hariri spent two weeks in Riyadh amid furious speculation he was being held "hostage" there by Saudi authorities.

Eventually, he returned to Beirut, put his resignation on hold, and dove into consultations with political rivals.

On Tuesday, he held his first ministerial meeting since his return, declaring he had rescinded his resignation and that Lebanon remained committed to "disassociation," or neutrality in regional conflicts.

"As fictitious, provisional and fragile as it is, this forced rapprochement between the two Lebanese camps is necessary and welcome, since security and economic risks are real," Bitar said.

He expected Riyadh would continue demanding Hizbullah withdraw its forces from Yemen. 

"The Saudis want more than just cosmetic concessions," Bitar warned.

"The Saudis have not said their last word yet. They're still determined to clip Iran's wings in the region."

Last week, Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubeir warned "there will not be peace" in Lebanon as long as Hizbullah stayed armed.

Riyadh, however, has also struggled to backpedal on its faux pas after Hariri's resignation sparked French and US interventions on his behalf. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman "realised he had gone too far... and that the operation resulted in Hariri regaining popularity," a French diplomatic source told AFP. 

Another Western source told AFP that Riyadh remained "very reluctant" to back Hariri, now once again leading a cabinet that includes Hizbullah. 

"They thought he would be able to counter Hizbullah. The opposite happened," the source said. 

And the source close to Hariri said Saudi's crown prince was not necessarily wedded to the Lebanese premier.

"MBS isn't sentimental," the source said, using a popular nickname for Mohammed Bin Salman.

"With him, it's give and take. In his eyes, Beirut isn't more important than Riyadh," the source added, describing the heir to the Saudi throne as "the prince in a rush."

Questions remain over what Saudi's next move in Lebanon will be. 

"Even Riyadh's closest allies in Lebanon fear Saudi's intransigence will cost the Lebanese economy dearly, without weakening Hizbullah much," said Bitar. 

Back at the helm, Hariri will attend crisis talks in Paris on Friday with top foreign officials, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But if the Saudis pursue their policy of "one-upmanship," Bitar warned, "France and Europe may not be able to do much to protect Lebanon from the escalating dangers on the regional level." 

Comments 10
Thumb galaxy 06 December 2017, 08:43

A source said...
A source told...
Bitar Warned....

lol @ the objective reporting.

Thumb the_roar 06 December 2017, 10:03

lol@ you objectively objecting to anything negative against Saudi.

If it wasn't for the leaders of Lebanon & France, hariri would be still held hostage in Saudi.

One Phone call from France was enough to remind the saudi's of their true weight & what would happen to them if hariri & his family were not released.

Thumb justin 06 December 2017, 14:07

If Lebanon now changed its policy to that of seriously dissociating itself from regional conflicts, and if that was ultimately what saudi arabia wanted how would that negatively reflect on saudi arabia ya troll?

So you took a break from your busy schedule and posted this brilliant comment to show us your trolling skills?

Thumb i.report 06 December 2017, 12:58

Galaxy, you know me. I'm one of the least frequent posters here. I read you everyday but I often opt not to post, just like..... the roar.

PS! Mr Bitar is the one who makes my manouche zaatar and jibné when I'm in Lebanon, his area of expertise is very limited.

Thumb doodle-dude 06 December 2017, 15:16

lol @ the wealthy and billionaire shia australian who travels the globe & has inside knowledge that no other person on this planet knows about;)

lol @ 'One Phone Call'

Thumb janoubi 06 December 2017, 10:02

Now wonder Joebustani always quotes Agence France Presse!

Thumb ado.australia 06 December 2017, 16:24

According to this article, Saad Hariri is the Prime Minister only through Saudi Arabian permission and agreement by Hezbollah. Nothing to do with the President of Lebanon or the Christians of Lebanon that control 50% of the Government cabinet and the Parliment. The most insignificant, annoying, irrelevant peoples of Lebanon... really accurate analysis of the policitical reality. Must be the same advisors to prince MSB

Thumb ado.australia 06 December 2017, 17:25

Yes, we are all waiting for prince Bandar, (who threatened President Putin and Russia) to reveal himself riding on a camel into Damascus after President Assad (who had 3months to live 6 years ago) kisses his feet!

And Turkey’s President will lay the caliphate reef on his head! :) After Turkey destroys Russian military in Syria!! HAHA Do you now recognize how stupid you are?

Thumb ado.australia 06 December 2017, 17:14

Sasha1, good bet that he isn’t Lebanese. Just some loser, angry that he’s lost. Part of the alliance that could’nt beat a baby in Chess

Thumb ado.australia 06 December 2017, 17:18

Maybe his camel has better hygiene. His desert tent now has solar power to watch “Arab X factor”