Hariri resignation crisis unites Lebanese
Lebanese cabinet to defy Riyadh and carry on without prime minister
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who many in Lebanon have no doubt is the prime mover of Hariri’s resignation. Photograph: Saudi Press Agency/via Reuters
Saudi Arabia’s clumsily choreographed resignation by Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri has united his chronically divided countrymen and shocked them into demanding his swift return.
The Lebanese cabinet, reportedly, intends to carry on with work without Hariri, defying Riyadh’s attempt to create a crisis in the country,
Speaking from Riyadh on Saturday in a pre-recorded address, Hariri accused Iran of using its ally, Hizbullah, to meddle in regional affairs and claimed his life had been threatened. Lebanese of all political persuasions dismissed these contentions.
Until he announced his resignation Hariri had, with Riyadh’s blessing, co-operated with Hizbullah ministers in a year-old unity cabinet which had been preparing for a long overdue parliamentary election, repeatedly postponed since 2013. Lebanon’s four security agencies have found no evidence of an assassination plot in spite of Hariri’s allegation.
Insulted by Hariri’s resignation in distant Riyadh, his own Future Movement party demanded his immediate return and argued his presence was needed to restore the “dignity of the nation”. Lebanese politicians from the entire political spectrum believe Hariri to be held against his will in Saudi Arabia, although this is dismissed by foreign diplomats who have met him.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun – who is aligned with Hizbullah – refuses to accept Hariri’s resignation. Aoun told Saudi charge d’affaires Walid al-Bukhari the circumstances of Hariri’s stepping down were “unacceptable”.
Aoun stated, “Finalising the resignation is put on hold until the return of [Hariri], and until the real reasons for his decision are revealed.”
A rally has been organised for central Beirut on Saturday to protest against Hariri’s resignation and absence, the circumstances of which have provoked a burgeoning regional crisis.
Hundreds of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini citizens have left Lebanon in recent days on the orders of their governments, while the firebrand Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, has warned Beirut that the kingdom will deal with Lebanon as a hostile state as long as Hizbullah holds posts in the government.
Hizbullah and another party, the Amal Movement, largely represent Lebanon’s Shia community, the country’s largest. Under Lebanon’s political system, the Shias cannot be excluded from government. In spite of this immutable political reality, there is serious concern that Saudi Arabia will try to undermine Lebanon’s banking sector, already hard hit by US regulations and US-imposed financial sanctions on Hizbullah.
Hariri was summoned to Riyadh on Friday shortly after he met in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For the Saudi leadership, this encounter between Riyadh’s man in Lebanon and a senior Iranian official was a betrayal.
For decades the Saudis have regarded Iran as their chief competitor in the Middle East and they have demonised Iran as the chief destabilising force in the region, although Saudi Arabia’s puritan Wahhabi ideology has, in recent years, instigated instability and warfare.
Hariri’s resignation coincided with the detention on corruption charges of 11 Saudi princes, four serving ministers and scores of millionaire businessmen and senior officials.
Hariri, who holds Saudi as well as Lebanese citizenship, could be added to the more than 200 detainees. He headed Saudi Oger, a construction company closed down due to bankruptcy in July after 39 years of operating in the kingdom. The head of the largest Saudi construction firm, Bakr bin Laden, was among the businessmen arrested last weekend.
Many in Lebanon have no doubt the prime mover of Hariri’s resignation is Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who holds the reins of power and could take over from his father, King Salman (82) if he abdicates in coming months. Since he succeeded the late King Abdullah in early 2015, the impetuous prince, aged 32, has conducted a risky foreign policy. He has boosted aid to jihadis fighting the government in Syria, waged war in Yemen and sanctioned neighbouring Qatar.
All the princely initiatives have backfired. Thanks to the support of Hizbullah, Russia and Iran, the Syrian government has not only survived but regained most territory seized by insurgents since 2011. Riyadh has been widely castigated for its deadly and destructive war on Yemen, where a Saudi blockade threatens millions with starvation.
Qatar has rejected Saudi demands and countered Saudi embargoes. As a result of these rash, dangerous initiatives, the Saudis have been losing influence and creating enemies in the region.
Lebanon appears to be an easy target for the crown prince. The country had been split between Hariri’s western-backed Sunni-Christian coalition and the Iran-supported Hizbullah-led Shia-Christian alliance. Although Hariri and Aoun had cohabited in the unity government, relations between the blocs had been strained by differences over the conduct of the parliamentary election.
However, having fought a bloody and costly civil war between 1975-90, the Lebanese seem to be determined not to be dragged into a fresh crisis that could precipitate further conflict.