by Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Beirut: Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s withdrawal of his controversial resignation still leaves Lebanon in a precarious position. Once again the country is right in the midst of the Saudi-Iran, Sunni-Shia cold war that is intensifying.
Saudi Arabia is hell bent on hemming in Iran’s influence in the region. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s hopes of using Hariri as a battering ram against Hezbollah massively backfired. Instead of bringing down the unity government, Lebanon’s leaders have once again created a political settlement holding together a fragile peace, much to MBS’s detriment. Lebanese leaders now state the government will dissociate itself from regional conflicts and will continue to walk this path. A meeting between Lebanese leaders and members of the UN Security Council (known as the International Support Group or ISG) in Paris have shored up international support for the Lebanese government.
Ambiguous statements are nothing new for Lebanese governments. Its fractured political landscape often relies on agreements based on a no victor no vanquished formula in hopes that all sides are pleased. These types of compromises are often the only way for the Lebanese government to function and even brought Hariri to power.
MBS was foolish to think that he could simply enter the Lebanese political fray by recalling Hariri to Riyadh on November 4 and have him resign. For two weeks the Lebanese public were not sure if their prime minister was a hostage of the Saudi monarchy or not, uniting political factions in their calls for the return of their premier. Once again foreign powers had to intervene to help Lebanon wade troubled waters, this time with French President Emanuel Macron managing to secure Hariri’s release.
But Lebanon still stands on perilous grounds. MBS has shown he is willing to go full throttle into conflicts as evidenced by the Saudi invasion of Yemen and its blockade against Qatar. MBS will not simply retreat from the Lebanese arena as he aims to restore Saudi dominance in the region. The Hariri family for decades has relied on Saudi patronage. Hariri’s fortunes are ultimately tied to backing by the Gulf. With MBS’s erratic behavior, it is hard to say what his next move will be, but it is doubtful that he is satisfied with Lebanon’s endorsement of a dissociation policy, especially with Hezbollah operating in several Sunni-majority countries. Although the ISG has given a green light for Hariri’s government to continue, it could most likely do little against MBS if he were to attempt to escalate the situation. Lebanese media has reported that MBS threatened Hariri with economic sanctions while he was held in Riyadh. Lebanon’s economy is heavily dependent on Gulf investments as well as remittances from Lebanese expats working in GCC countries. If Saudi Arabia were to tie an economic noose around Lebanon’s neck, the effects could be devastating.
Hariri’s base is already fractured as evidenced in the municipal elections where he was defeated in Tripoli, Lebanon’s largest Sunni city. Also, previous attempts to reign in Hezbollah or rule without them have failed. They are a major political force in Lebanon and now a regional militia. There is little MBS can do to curtail their power. Instead MBS should be helping Hariri reorganize his political base to help win back the hearts and minds of the Lebanese public. As it stands now he only represents pockets of Lebanon’s Sunnis. If MBS tries to bring his anti-Iran crusade to Lebanon it could easily stir up sectarian strife in Lebanon or cause widespread economic damage but mostly likely continue to leave Hezbollah in tact. For now, Lebanon like it has always done will continue to walk a political tightrope as conflict continues to surround it.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon