IT was during a trip to Saudi Arabia on November 4 that Mr Hariri abruptly announced he was resigning from his position as Prime Minister of Lebanon. In a televised announcement, Mr Hariri accused Iran of sowing “discord, devastation and destruction” in the region. He also accused Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which is part of a national unity government that Mr Hariri formed last year, of sabotaging his nation. He also said he feared for his life. The day after Hariri’s resignation, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah appeared on Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, and calmly insinuated Hariri was not a free man and that Saudi Arabia had ordained his resignation statement. Nasrallah did not confront Hariri, but rather voiced empathy for the former prime minister. Nasrallah was not alone in his stance.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun stated that Hariri was a “hostage” in Saudi Arabia. His detention he said was “an attack on us (Lebanese), and it’s an attack on our (Lebanese) independence.” Mr Aoun, whose party has an alliance with Hezbollah, specified that Mr Hariri can only present his resignation in Lebanon and must stay there while a new government is formed. After stops in France, Egypt and Cyprus, Mr Hariri landed in Beirut last week to a hero’s welcome. The next day, during a celebration of Lebanon’s Independence Day, he announced that he was deferring his resignation to allow for dialogue with other political leaders. Of course any dialogue will have to address Hezbollah’s activities abroad, a matter that Lebanese politicians have always circumvented because they know they have little influence over a military force much more powerful than the national army.
Beyond the shock of the announcement, in Lebanon there was a collective sigh of weariness that the country has once more been thrown into a crisis. Lebanon is a small, resource-poor country that has since long depended on oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia for jobs and business openings. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese work in the Gulf, sending back billions of dollars a year in remittances that help keep the economy afloat. Now, Lebanon is at the crossroads in the decades-long struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence. It takes a certain level of political gullibility or rather plain stupidity to continue to believe that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned of his own will. Taking account of all the information that has come to light since the resignation announcement, the more substantial explanation would be that Riyadh forced Hariri to resign as part of a more hostile Saudi strategy to counter Iran in not only Lebanon but across the region.
The upshot of the hurried departure, and the heated week since, has swept across the region, linking apparently different events (the fall of Kurdish-held Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the Iraqi government, malnourishment among the population of war-torn Yemen and a ballistic missile over Riyadh) which, in actuality, are indications of political connotations that had been streaming through the Middle East since a long time. These have now erupted and in essence they build up to a great strategic power play between two regional colossuses that has suddenly transferred from back channels to a powerful consciousness. The Saudis were indubitably dissatisfied with Hariri chairing over a government that is essentially run by Iran’s staunch ally Hezbollah.
However, whether they like it or not, it is not possible to remove Hezbollah from Lebanese politics or society. It appears to be bizarre if Saudi leadership seriously considered the idea that Hariri could harness Hezbollah. One just needs to take a quick look at the group’s relationship to Lebanese governments since 2005, which it either dominated, defied or overthrew at will. No government can be formed without Hezbollah’s assent. If Saudis are indeed behind the conspiracies, they may find they have bitten off more than they can chew. There is an old saying “We Lebanese are easy to swallow but hard to digest.” Saudi Arabia, led by a 32-year-old Crown Prince, may now be in for a fit of Lebanese dyspepsia.
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.
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