The November 3 lunch in Beirut that Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, organised for the visiting French cultural minister Francoise Nyssen could have passed off as another routine affair. Midway into their meal, however, Hariri received a call that not only dramatically turned the cordial atmosphere frosty but was a strident signal of the drastic climate change that has been taking place across West Asian geo-politics over the past few years.
Hariri’s arrival in Riyadh within the next few hours and the announcement of his resignation as PM through a televised address in the Saudi capital only thickened the fug of existing intrigue.
The Lebanese leader’s leave of absence from his country has already led to speculations that he is under detention in Saudi custody and sparked off street protests in Lebanon, demanding his immediate return. But the fast-paced developments are also being keenly analysed in world capitals, and many see them as a significant frontier of the ongoing Shia-Sunni proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The sanguinary ramifications of this rivalry and the realignment of forces it might bring about could plunge the volatile region further into a long phase of instability. War-weary Lebanon—where political power is shared among Christians, Shias and Sunnis under a peace arrangement after 15 years of a bloody civil war in 1989—is especially susceptible. Three wars—in Syria, Iraq and Yemen—are already raging without any sign of early peace. Hariri’s uncertain fate in Riyadh could further aggravate the situation.
While the current focus is on Lebanon, much of the script in this political drama had been written in Saudi Arabia. Thus, it has to been seen in the context of the current monarch and his son’s attempt to consolidate power, and the kingdom’s implacable fight for influence in the region with its traditional rival, Iran.
Things started once Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended the Saudi throne in 2015, and soon after made his favourite son, Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince and his chosen successor, marginalising close relatives and key members of the Al Saud family.
If the King jettisoned a traditional way of consensus building on key issues among senior princes, making the kingdom a stable and risk-averse regime, his son went several steps ahead in fundamentally altering the rules of engagement that characterised Riyadh. “The old ways of doing business in Saudi Arabia have changed dramatically,” a US diplomat who served in the region was quoted as saying.
This began with a deeper involvement in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Prince Mohammad was also said to be instrumental in pursuing a policy of isolating Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
But it is his recent domestic policy, particularly the arrest of senior royal members and some of the most high-profile billionaire investors in the world, that grabbed world headlines. Yet, the prince is also reform-minded and is reportedly popular with Saudi youth—he garnered world attention and praise for his decision to allow Saudi women to drive a few weeks back. As many support his efforts of altering Saudi Arabia, others question whether he has bitten off more than he can chew.
Since its birth in 1932, Saudi Arabia has dealt with a variety of crises, ranging from abdication by a profligate monarch, assassination of another by a nephew and a series of terror attacks, including the famous siege and assaults on the two holy mosques at Mecca and Medina in 1979. The 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001 had put the kingdom in a tight spot, following revelations that most of the attackers were Saudi nationals. But neither this nor the rise of another of its famous sons, Osama bin Laden, to the status of the most wanted terrorist in the world, could keep Saudi Arabia down. The Kingdom’s deep oil reserves, huge wealth and unquestioned loyalty to the US always cemented Riyadh’s importance as one of Washington’s closest allies. In addition, as custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is virtually the leader of Sunni Islam.
Since becoming US president, Donald Trump visited Riyadh in May this year, making it his first foreign stop. It is a matter of minor detail that before leaving, he also managed to bag deals worth $250 billion from the Saudis. So, it is obvious where the American president’s sympathies would lie during the high-voltage political drama played out within the kingdom.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump promptly tweeted in support of King Salman and his son Mohammad. To indicate that he supports the move to arrest key members of the royal household on corruption charges, he further stated that some of those being harshly treated have been ‘milking’ their country for years!
According to media reports, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had visited Saudi Arabia recently—his third visit this year—and spent long hours strategising till late night at a desert ranch with the crown prince.
Prince Salman’s anti-corruption drive, leading to the high-profile arrests, and the summoning the Lebanese PM to Riyadh and his resignation followed soon after.
Hariri, a fellow Sunni, enjoyed the support of Al Saud for long, helping his family make a fortune from their construction business in the kingdom. Observers say the Saudis felt Hariri was being undermined by the Hezbollah—a militant Shia group with close links with Iran—his coalition partners in the Lebanese government.
The success of Iran in Syria and Yemen, where it is engaged in a proxy war against Riyadh-backed militant outfits, is attributed to Hezbollah fighters, who are also blamed for the recent missile attack on Riyadh. These developments, along with Iran’s help in allowing the Iraqi government to win back Kirkuk from the Kurds—all signifying the extent of the Shia arc of influence in West Asia—has made the Saudis and its allies break out in cold sweat.
The Saudis have asked its citizens to leave Lebanon, though no one knows yet why. Many are speculating that this can be its effort to put pressure on the Hezbollah, along with Hariri’s resignation. But questions are also being asked whether Hariri’s resignation—and the threat of Lebanon’s old wounds opening up again—will force the Hezbollah into changing its ways. Unrest in Lebanon could strategically tie down the Hezbollah at home, keeping it from venturing abroad, like in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Others point to the fact that the Saudis may have one of the “most expensive” armies in the world, but that necessarily does not make it the “most effective”. To take on the Hezbollah and the more disciplined Iranian army, may, therefore, put Riyadh in an embarrassing position.
Geo-politics makes strange bedfellows—Israel and United Arab Emirates, along with the US, are all rallying behind Riyadh to stop Iran’s growing influence in the region. And Russia, the main backer—and, some would argue, game-changer—of the Assad regime in Syria and aligned with Tehran in that effort, has turned out to be the most sought-after player, with whom even the Saudis and Israelis are keen in developing strong ties.
Moscow may therefore, not allow Iran to unilaterally expand its influence in the region, that can lead to further instability. Turkey, beset with its own problems, may also maintain a neutral stand and join efforts to defuse the rising tension between the Saudis and the Iranians.
Back in Riyadh, the young and cocksure crown prince may have to go slow on his policies to reform Saudi Arabia and shape its neighbourhood according to his heart’s desire. Otherwise, a possible long spell of violence in this oil-rich region could leave its ugly marks on far corners of the world.