An outspoken critic: Riyadh’s ‘anti-Hezbollah minister’

Thamer al-Sabhan personifies Saudi Arabia’s fight against the ‘terrorist militia.’

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) meets with Saudi Arabia's Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan in Beirut, Lebanon February 6, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) meets with Saudi Arabia's Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan in Beirut, Lebanon February 6, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent weeks Saudi Arabia’s minister of Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, has become the public face of the kingdom’s campaign against Hezbollah and what he describes as Iran and Hezbollah’s threat to the region.
On Monday he was featured on Al-Arabiya televised news slamming the government of Lebanon, which includes Hezbollah: “We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah.”
Sabhan met with Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri on October 31, four days before he resigned. Sabhan posted photos on social media of himself with the Sunni leader.
The minister’s recent public statements, including those on Twitter, have had a way of auguring important moves by the kingdom. He told an interviewer on October 30 that “those who believe that my tweets are a personal stance are delusional, and they will see what will happen in [the] coming days.” He has called Hezbollah a “terrorist militia” and “Party of Satan,” a takeoff on the group’s name in Arabic which means “Party of God.”
Sabhan is the latest outspoken Saudi, teaming up with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir who has been one of the most public opponents of Iranian action in the region over the years.
Al-Sabhan is reported to be traveling to Washington this week to meet senior US officials.
Born in Riyadh in 1967, Sabhan received a degree in military science from King Abdulaziz Military College in 1988 and a master’s in police and security sciences from Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in 2007, according to an online biography composed by Ibrahim al-Jabin at the Al-Arab news website. He served in the army in the 1990s, including a stint working with the US-led coalition during the First Gulf War in 1991, rising through the ranks of the Special Military Police forces. In 2014 he was appointed military attaché to Lebanon and in 2015 he became Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Iraq.
Soon after being appointed, he was involved in a controversy involving his comments about the Popular Mobilization Units, the Iranian-backed Shia militias that have played a major role in Iraq’s war on Islamic State. He accused them of not being welcome in Sunni areas of Iraq. After the liberation of Ramadi from ISIS in December 2015, he met with local Sunni Arab leaders and sought to send Saudi financial aid to help rebuild the area after the war’s devastation.
According to an extensive October 2016 article by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Sabhan became a lightning rod for critique by pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iranian media. The Kurdish media outlet Rudaw reported that Sabhan was harshly critical of “Iranian terrorist personalities,” which he said were involved in the battle against ISIS for Falluja. He took to Twitter in June 2016: “Falluja proves that they want to burn the Arab Iraqis in the fire of sectarianism.”
Pro-Iranian voices in Iraq, including former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, led a campaign of incitement against Sabhan, seeking to have him expelled. After reports that the Popular Mobilization Units’ Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militia, also known as the Khazali Network, wanted to assassinate the ambassador, he returned to Riyadh.
In October 2016 he was appointed minister of state for Gulf affairs. According to the UAE-based Khaleej Times, King Salman had ordered the creation of this position and Sabhan became its first occupant. It appears that his current portfolio is quite broad, because in May 2017 when he met special representative of the UN for Iraq, Jan Kubis, he discussed the kingdom’s interest in continued efforts to support Iraq.
He also mentioned Israel in a tweet, noting on July 15 that “in the past, we were complaining about Israel’s enmity, but now our brothers have become more hostile and belligerent to us than Israel.” It appears this was a reference to the Qatar crises in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a blockade on Qatar, accusing the kingdom of working with Iran and groups like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sabhan visited Syria in October alongside US special envoy for the war against ISIS Brett McGurk, where the minister also discussed Saudi Arabia’s support for rebuilding efforts. This fuels speculation that his role in the kingdom is much larger than his title as gulf minister suggests.
The Saudi politician has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Hezbollah. On September 4 he tweeted that the “devil’s party” was guilty of inhuman crimes against the Arab nation. On October 8 he praised US sanctions against Hezbollah. On October 13 he said the kingdom would “cut off the hands” of the “terrorism party,” a reference to Hezbollah. And in late October he also tweeted against the “terrorist militia,” calling for it to be punished for its role in global terrorism.
All of this seems to have foreshadowed Saudi Arabia’s increasingly visible discussions about the need to confront Iran and Hezbollah.