By Nick Lobo
On November 22, Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut after more than two weeks, having hastily tendered his resignation from the Saudi capital at the beginning of the month—a move widely understood to better reflect the will of Riyadh than that of Hariri himself. The prime minister returned to a country whose chronically volatile political order had just flirted with disaster. Certainly, the prospect of a head of government being strong-armed by one of his country’s larger, more aggressive allies would be cause for concern anywhere in the world. Lebanon’s is an especially precarious case made significantly more complicated by internal actors and interests just as much as by its powerful neighbors, who have historically played an inordinate role in shaping the country’s development. Thus, any analysis of the current crisis must be firmly rooted in a clear understanding of this cast of characters, comprising the domestic and the foreign alike. Still, the question on the mind of anyone intently watching the situation unfold remains brutally simple: is Lebanon headed for another war?
In Hariri’s resignation speech given in Riyadh, where he remained for nearly three weeks, the premier castigated Hezbollah for contributing to the country’s deeply fractured political state, going so far as to refer to it as “the arm of Iran.” Notably, Hariri also cited threats against his life as a major impetus for his resignation and mentioned an atmosphere in Lebanon resembling that of early 2005, when his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, was assassinated in a tragic car bombing widely attributed to Hezbollah. However, the Lebanese army put forth a statement following Hariri’s speech announcing that no assassination threats had been discovered in its investigations, raising suspicion about the veracity of the premier’s stated concerns. The questionable circumstances of Hariri’s stay in Riyadh had few Lebanese, especially within Hariri’s Sunni base, convinced that he was acting of his own free will. President Michel ‘Aoun, a Maronite Christian and long-time ally of Hezbollah, wasted no time in declaring that Hariri is a “hostage” of the Saudi regime and that he will not accept the prime minister’s resignation until it is delivered in person.
Hariri’s lengthy November 12 interview with Paula Yacoubian of Future TV did little to dispel these suspicions; Yacoubian, who went to great lengths during the interview to prove that it had not been pre-recorded or otherwise staged, remarked that she was unable to convince anyone that the premier is not a prisoner in the Saudi capital. Hariri’s stressed and erratic demeanor throughout the recording served only to further affirm this assumption.
Hezbollah, meaning “party of God” in Arabic, has wielded significant military power and enjoyed the backing of wide popular support in Lebanon since its emergence during the country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s as an aggregation of Shi’a groups loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah’s genesis certainly owes to a complex blend of local and international factors, but the Islamic Republic’s role in the group’s formation and its historic support for and coordination with its efforts is notable. The 1989 Ta’if Agreement, brokered in Saudi Arabia, brought the war to an end and disarmed the country’s various militant groups. Hezbollah was allowed to remain the country’s only armed sectarian militia thereafter, labeled as “Islamic resistance” to the ongoing occupation. It is this historical reality that placed Hezbollah at the helm of Lebanese politics. Hezbollah relies extensively on foreign support, chiefly from Iran—it continues to receive the financial patronage of the Islamic Republic to the tune of $800 million in recent years according to some estimates, although the exact amount is impossible to know.
The group, now an institutionalized political entity, commands a larger fighting force than the Lebanese military and has served as a steadfast patron of Bashar al-Asad’s regime since 2013. Although the group continues to command loyal bases of support among Shi’i communities, within Lebanon and across the region, it has been the target of increased criticism and scrutiny for its use of violence, most recently by the Arab League which formally declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization on November 19.
Saudi Arabia has long been intent on limiting Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The two countries have been staunch adversaries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 deposed the shah’s regime and established a Shi’a theocracy in its place. These diametrically-opposed regional powers exist in a chronic proxy conflict, often described as a cold war, fought across several theaters: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and now the situation in Lebanon are prime examples of how this bad blood has manifested in significant and tragic ways across the region—particularly for the smaller, less powerful states that wind up caught in the sectarian crossfire. The recent Lebanese political turmoil also started in the wake of Saudi forces intercepting a missile fired at Riyadh from the Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Kingdom and its coalition have for years been deeply invested in upholding the besieged government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
There’s nothing new about this deep-seated regional rivalry per se, but the crisis in Lebanon can also be attributed, in many ways, to the personal ambitions of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who recently caught the world’s attention with his ostensible anti-corruption purge of nearly 500 princes, ministers and businessmen. In addition to the prince’s efforts to consolidate his power domestically, as represented by this purge, bin Salman has sought to rein in his regional allies as well. Hariri, who stands at the helm of a government that not only allows but directly includes Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-allied force ideologically and strategically hostile to Saudi interests, became a liability in bin Salman’s calculus of regional politics. It is also likely that Hariri’s lukewarm popularity before his resignation and his lack of a strong mandate over his Sunni base—portraying the premier as failing to fill the shoes of his immensely popular father and predecessor—motivated bin Salman’s desire to bring about a restructuring of Lebanon’s government.
Compelling, though still technically unconfirmed, evidence suggests that bin Salman pressured Hariri to resign the premiership in order to mitigate the risks he envisioned. By most accounts, bin Salman’s gambit appears to have failed. The most direct support for this conclusion is that Hariri suspended his resignation upon his return to Beirut. Moreover, Hariri’s apparent detention in Saudi Arabia has given rise to a significant jump in his popular backing, rallying the Lebanese people around slogans like “We are all Saad” and “We want our PM back” and inspiring demonstrations. Although it remains to be seen whether this outpouring of support will result in a much-needed parliamentary victory for Hariri and his al-Mustaqbal (Arabic for “Future”) party next May, the popular backlash against Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs severely undercuts bin Salman’s bid to keep Lebanon in line and has denied the Gulf power a clear “win” against Hezbollah and Iran. The conditions of Hariri’s long-awaited return to his country and office suggest that Lebanon is unlikely to collapse into total disaster in the near future. Nevertheless, the crisis has shown that the country’s fragile political order remains deeply susceptible to the whims of foreign powers.