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The puzzling demise of Lebanon’s Sa’ad Hariri

Riyadh’s man in Beirut is gone but seemingly not in some careful Saudi plot.

The puzzling demise of Lebanon’s Sa’ad Hariri
Published 9 Nov 2017   Follow @RodgerShanahan

Amid the political carnage visited upon the upper levels of the Saudi polity last week was the fall from high political office of another Saudi citizen, none other than the Lebanese prime minister Sa’ad Hariri. The public resignation was aired on Saudi-owned al-Arabiyya television. There was and often has been disquiet about Hariri’s performance as ‘Riyadh’s man in Beirut’.

Hariri was always felt to lack his late father’s charisma and drive; he had the name and wealth but not the character to influence events. Even his financial power is not what it was. Saudi Oger, the massive Saudi construction firm his father founded, was struggling to meet its financial commitments. Last year its workers complained of unpaid wages, and the squeeze impacted on the Future Movement in Lebanon, Hariri’s political organisation, where reports of unpaid wages and sackings began to surface, too. The company collapsed at the end of July under the weight of its debt.

Hariri’s resignation is puzzling. There have been articles pointing to the domestic reasons for his decision, and that he had been thinking about doing this at some stage before next year’s parliamentary elections. But there are too many indicators to believe that this was not directed from Riyadh.

First, the resignation speech was delivered from Riyadh rather than Beirut. Second, it occurred at the same time as the Saudi Night of the Long Knives, which is a tad too coincidental. Finally, it appears to have taken everyone (particularly in Lebanon) by surprise. These facts alone would indicate that the resignation was not Hariri’s decision.

If even some of it is to be believed, this account of what allegedly took place by the pro-Hizbullah al-Akhbar newspaper is revealing. The Saudis viewed Hariri as one of their own rather than a Lebanese leader. Hariri’s resignation could have been written by the Saudi Crown Prince’s office, and likely was.

Hariri intimated that dark forces were out to get him, claiming that 'I sensed what is being woven in secret to target my life.’ He also put blame for the region’s woes at the feet of Tehran but declared the days of Persian perfidy were numbered. 'I want to tell Iran and its followers that they are losing in their interferences in the affairs of Arab nations,' he said. 'Our nation will rise just as it did before, and the hands that will harm it will be cut.’ Despite getting Saudi ministerial support for his claim that there was an active assassination plot against him, no evidence was ever offered and Lebanese internal security forces were quick to declare that the plot was news to them.

The biggest question regarding the resignation is exactly what the Saudis were trying to achieve by forcing the Lebanese PM to resign. The consensus is that Hariri was pushed to resign by the Saudis who thought he was too accommodating of Hizbullah within his government, and thus wanted to avoid giving pro-Iranian forces the fig-leaf of bipartisanship that they believed the presence of a pro-Saudi Sunni PM gave them. Saudi Arabia is looking for a counterweight to Iranian influence in Lebanon, and Hariri wasn’t delivering.

There’s no doubt Lebanese Sunnis are in search of a strong communal political leader, while the Saudi Sunnis are in search of a strong Lebanese Sunni political leader who can stand up to Hizbullah. Hariri has disappointed both these constituencies. But exactly how the resignation of Hariri is supposed to create domestic problems for Hizbullah is unclear.

A public accusation of an Iranian hand in some uncorroborated assassination claim might tie in with Saudi Arabia’s narrative of pervasive Iranian regional perfidy, but it doesn’t convince too many others. If the aim was to create political turmoil in Lebanon, it’s unclear to what end. Hizbullah has navigated political turbulence in Lebanon before, and Iranian influence in Lebanon is more deeply embedded than Saudi Arabia’s.

Of course, it may well be that there is no well thought-out Saudi plan. Their track record on Yemen, Syria and Iraq is hardly indicative of realistic and attentive long-term planning. Perhaps this was simply part of the broader weekend assertion of Muhammad bin Salman’s power. Perhaps Riyadh had demanded Hariri start to confront Hizbullah in Lebanon and his resignation was the price he paid for not delivering.

Given the opaque nature of Saudi decision-making, it’s not certain we’ll ever know the real story. But I’m not sure it’s part of a well-considered plan.

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