The Saudi-Iranian power struggle reaches Lebanon

Rumors have been abundant around the resigation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri's in Saudi Arabia.

Youmn Ahmad, a Lebanese artist, paints a portrait of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, during the annual Beirut Marathon, in Beirut Lebanon November 12, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/JAMAL SAIDI)
Youmn Ahmad, a Lebanese artist, paints a portrait of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, during the annual Beirut Marathon, in Beirut Lebanon November 12, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/JAMAL SAIDI)
Saturday, November 4, 2017, was a day of high drama in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. That evening three events of crucial significance for the region took place within a few hours of each other.
The first took place late in the afternoon, when a ballistic missile was fired into Saudi Arabia, aimed at the country’s King Khalid International Airport. Saudi security is state-of-the-art, and the missile was intercepted and destroyed over Riyadh, probably by a US Patriot surface- to-air missile. Credit for the attack was immediately claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The missile, according to the Houthi-run Saba News, was a Burkan (Volcano) H2, held to be of Iranian manufacture.
No doubt Saudi Arabia will respond with a counter-attack in Yemen.
The Saudi civil aviation authority announced that the kingdom’s air traffic had not been disrupted – which was just as well, for shortly afterward Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, was touching down at King Khalid.
As he did so, according to press reports a group of Saudi policemen surrounded the plane. When they came aboard they confiscated his mobile phone and those of his bodyguards, and he was then whisked off to the royal palace.
Hariri had been in a cabinet meeting in Beirut on Friday, November 3 when he received a call from Riyadh asking him to visit King Salman of Saudi Arabia urgently.
Hariri, who holds Saudi as well as Lebanese citizenship, duly set off the next day. An hour or so after arriving in Riyadh he was driven to Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabia TV station, where he proceeded to astonish the world, and stun his nation, by announcing his resignation as prime minister.
Reading from a prepared text, he said his life had been threatened, that he was stepping down in protest at the growing influence of Hezbollah in the nation’s affairs and that Hezbollah – which controls a military force provided by Iran that is larger and more powerful than Lebanon’s own – should be disarmed. An empowered Iran, he stressed, was a threat not just to Lebanon but to the world.
Within Lebanon there was widespread agreement that the prime minister had been hijacked, that the nation’s sovereignty had been violated and that behind the coup was the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Whether or not this was the case, there could be no denying that bin Salman was the mastermind behind the third headline-grabbing event of that critical Saturday.
It started late that afternoon when Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a favored son of the late king Abdullah, was removed from his post as chief of the security service.
Shortly afterward dozens of the nation’s most influential figures, including 11 of bin Salman’s royal cousins as well as four government ministers, were swept up in a veritable whirlwind of arrests justified as a crackdown on corruption.
Only hours earlier King Salman had decreed the creation of a powerful new anti-corruption committee, headed by the crown prince, with the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel or freeze the assets of anyone it deems corrupt. It was this new committee that ordered the arrests. The Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, which earlier in the day had been cleared of all guests, was where the dozens of influential prisoners were detained. By Sunday morning it was clear that the most radical transformation in the kingdom’s governance for more than eight decades had taken place in a bloodless coup.
Most see bin Salman’s moves as a grab for supreme power. He is now in effect running Saudi Arabia, which he has said he will transform into a modern state through his imaginative Saudi Vision 2030 program. He sees his clampdown on the complacent Saudi elite as essential to his success. They stand accused of decades of “systematic corruption,” and indeed the Saudi Arabian news media celebrated the arrests as a long-awaited clean-up. Stories about princes absconding with vast sums that had been allocated for public projects were legion.
As regards Lebanon, in bin Salman’s drive to remove Iranian influence the fear is that he wants to restart its civil war. If that is indeed his intention, it seems unlikely to succeed. There is unanimity from every quarter, including Hezbollah, that Hariri must be returned. Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, announced he would not consider the premier’s resignation until the two meet in person.
In a live interview given to his station Future TV on Sunday, November 12, Hariri denied he was being held against his will. “I am free,” Hariri told the TV interviewer, and said that he will return “very soon... within days.”
Hariri’s assertion was not believed either in Lebanon or more widely.
Michael Young, who edits Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East program, believes Saturday’s events are part of a coherent pattern – a coordinated effort by bin Salman to consolidate his power within Saudi Arabia and beyond, and an extension of the perpetual Saudi-Iran struggle to a new front, Lebanon.
“There is no doubt the recent events are linked,” he said. He believes the crown prince may be stoking tensions in Lebanon to help provide cover for his domestic shake-up, and there are rumors he may be seeking to extend his grip within Lebanon by replacing Hariri with his harder-line older brother, Bahaa, who is also currently in Riyadh.
International reaction to these unprecedented developments has been remarkably subdued. The only Western leader to react was French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew to Riyadh to discuss Hariri’s fate. As for the US, President Donald Trump has been tweeting of his “great confidence” in the crown prince and King Salman.
“They know exactly what they are doing,” he wrote – not surprisingly, since they are doing precisely as Trump himself would wish: strengthening his ally, Saudi Arabia, and challenging his main foe, Iran.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: