By Yousuf Abdelfatah
The Lebanese Prime Minister takes an unscheduled trip to Saudi Arabia. While there, he shocks the Middle East by announcing his unexpected resignation from the Saudi capital, denouncing Iran, and claiming that there have been threats against his life by Hezbollah. Rumors abound that he is being held against his will and is unable to leave the country. At the same time the Saudi crown prince leads a crackdown on “corruption”, consolidating his power by detaining cabinet ministers and members of the royal family. What sounds like the blurb on the back of a Tom Clancy book jacket is the actual series of events that has taken place over the past few weeks in the Middle East.
About a week later the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Al-Hariri, toned down his earlier rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah in a televised interview where he seemed to imply that he might withdraw his resignation if certain demands were met. He has since left Saudi Arabia for France where he met with French President Emmanuel Macron and has said that he will return to Lebanon within the week. Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, have stated that they would not accept his resignation until it was delivered in Lebanon. For their part, Hezbollah has denied the accusations against it and has said that it believes Hariri is being held against his will and that his resignation was forced. Interestingly enough Hariri’s mysterious circumstances appear to have united Lebanon across its sectarian divisions. Billboards with the hashtag #weareallsaad have appeared in Beirut and banners supporting the Prime Minister were seen at the Beirut marathon. Mr. Hariri’s popularity has soared and he seems to have become the Lebanese symbol against foreign involvement in their domestic affairs.
It would appear that Saudi Arabia is trying to use Lebanon as the next staging ground in its proxy fight against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s main concern in the Middle East and the chief driver of its foreign policy is the spread of Iranian influence in the region. Hezbollah, considered by many to be an Iranian proxy, is a major political player in the Lebanese government and a close ally of President Michel Aoun. Saudi Arabia poured a significant amount of money into Lebanon in support of Hariri and in an effort to counteract the influence of Iran and Hezbollah. However as Hezbollah began to gain more influence in the country the Saudis began to withdraw support, leading Hariri to make a deal with Hezbollah which no doubt angered Saudi Arabia. Mr. Hariri’s trip to Riyadh also coincided with Saudi Arabia accusing Iran-backed Yemeni rebels of firing a missile at the capital. After intercepting the Yemeni missile Saudi Arabia said that they would treat Lebanon as a government declaring war due to the Hezbollah’s aggression.
Saudi Arabia has no doubt been emboldened by the Trump administration’s declarations of support. Donald Trump quickly expressed his support for the arrests tweeting that he, “had great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.” The Trump administration has been very supportive of Saudi Arabia since the President’s visit in May. Despite objection from his diplomatic and military advisors the President has also supported the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. The administration’s hope is that they will be able to secure more arms deals and that when Aramco, the Saudi national oil company goes public they will list on the NY stock exchange. The state department has dialed the President’s rhetoric back a bit, warning against using Lebanon as a base for “proxy conflict” and the Secretary of State advised that “all parties need to be careful about characterizing the start of another war.”
It is absolutely not in American interests to see Lebanon’s political system destabilized. Without setting clear boundaries the Trump administration may find itself embroiled in Middle East conflicts based on the actions of Riyadh. The war in Yemen is a clear indication of the kind of mess that Saudi Arabia’s regional interference can cause. The President should follow the lead of his state department and make it clear to the Saudis that they do not have a blank check of American support and should encourage diplomacy between Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudi calculus appears to have been that if they could make Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon clear to the international community through Mr. Hariri then they would have American support. If the United States makes clear that it will not back a Saudi play in Lebanon, then the Kingdom will be forced to reconsider its actions.
Yousuf Abdelfatah is is a senior at Rowan University where he studies Economy and Political Science. Yousef is also the blogger for Middle East and North African Affairs.
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