Saudi attempts to discredit Hariri fail as Lebanese public backs PM
BEIRUT - As the bizarre case of the fate of Lebanon’s prime minister continues to unfold, many in Lebanon are now waiting to see what Saudi Arabia’s next move will be after what many consider to be the kingdom’s miscalculations in "phase one".
Saad Hariri surprised the country on 4 November with his unplanned resignation after he was abruptly summoned to Saudi Arabia.
The move fuelled rumours that Hariri was subject to restriction of movement, lack of access to the outside world, detention, house arrest, and even kidnap. These claims are also echoed by the Lebanese president and the political class, who have all refused to recognise the resignation – going so far as to call it illegal - until Hariri is allowed to return to Lebanon.
But in a live interview on Sunday night from Riyadh with his own TV channel, Hariri promised to return to Lebanon soon, in a move interpreted as a feeble attempt to dispel the notion he is not "free".
For Lebanon’s political circles, the talking points he focused on - stressing that Saudi Arabia’s problem with Hezbollah is Yemen, working on a reconciliation with the government in Beirut and a "neutral" Lebanon policy - were revealing. Many analysts interpreted Hariri’s words as a Saudi retreat from its initial position as it recognises that its gamble in Lebanon, at this point, has been unsuccessful.
“It seems the Saudis are walking back from their original position because they have not been able to achieve what they wanted inside Lebanon,” a source close to the Hezbollah-backed March 8 camp told Middle East Eye.
The March 8 camp, which consists of the president’s political party as well as Hezbollah and others, is generally viewed as pro-Syrian government and has pushed for opening negotiations with Bashar al-Assad in order to deal with the Syrian refugee issue – a policy that Hariri and his March 14 camp are against.
Saudi gamble backfires
According to March 8, after 10 days of threats against Lebanon, Saudi Arabia realised that their allies on the ground – Samir Geagea, Christian Lebanese Forces leader, and Ashraf Rifi, a former justice minister who broke from Hariri’s Future Movement – were not strong enough to make the necessary changes in the country. Both welcomed Hariri’s resignation and subsequently attempted unsuccessfully to manoeuvre themselves to promote the Saudi agenda and potential alternative premiership figures inside Lebanon.
“They were also expecting Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches to be fiery and thus provoke the Sunni street but this also did not happen,” said the March 8 source, referring to Nasrallah’s televised speech on Friday where he warned that Saudi Arabia had been inciting Israel to strike Lebanon.
“This does not mean it is over, it just means the Saudis are taking a break to reassess after having failed at phase one,” added the source.
Following Hariri’s resignation Saudi Arabia carried out a series of escalatory measures, quickly declaring that Lebanon had declared war on the kingdom, then following up by recalling its citizens from Lebanon.
“We haven’t seen any material gains for Saudi Arabia. The most they’ve been able to do is create some ambiguity,” said Rabie Barakat, Lebanese political analyst and lecturer at the American University of Beirut.
“Instead we’ve seen mounting international pressure to resolve this case, the intervention of foreign heads of state, and the lack of willingness on the part of Israel to engage in a war under premature conditions.”
“Saudi Arabia has also noticed this and is taking distance from its initial escalation through the promotion of alternative political possibilities, including Hariri returning to Lebanon,” he added.
Diplomatic and security concerns
While Lebanon is no stranger to foreign interference and over the decades has repeatedly been the battleground for proxy forces of foreign powers attempting to impose leverage and assert their control in the region, the possible forced detention of a Lebanese head of state by another country is certainly a first.
There has been a flurry of closed-door meetings between foreign government representatives and Lebanese officials in an attempt to push for Hariri’s release, with sources close to the president saying Aoun will escalate the situation to the United Nations Security Council if it continues to drag out. Others are demanding the expulsion of the top Saudi diplomat in Lebanon, Waleed Bukhari, as a response to Saudi aggression on Lebanon and its violation of sovereignty.
And Western diplomatic sources have voiced concern over what they call “a historically unprecedented diplomatic incident.”
“It caught everyone off-guard,” said one diplomat. “And it is difficult to say what the Saudis may do next to Lebanon. Look at how MbS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] acted with his own relatives as he rounded them up in Saudi Arabia last week, so anything is possible.”
As one Lebanese security official told MEE: “[Mohammad bin Salman] is a child, in age and in maturity – look at what he has done over the last two years. This is not a wise person who makes smart decisions. “
Alert to the fact external forces may try and capitalise on the situation inside Lebanon, security agencies have gone to some lengths to reassure the public that the security situation is under control.
Security sources who spoke to MEE are convinced that another war with Israel – a point that had been raised by many commentators who viewed the current situation as an opportunity for Israel to launch a war on the country – is unlikely to occur off the back of a Saudi escalation. While a war has been on the cards for a decade now, Lebanese security sources point out that Israel does not take orders from Saudi Arabia, despite their recent rapprochement.
At the same time, there is concern over the potential awakening of "sleeper cells" in some of the Palestinian camps – leading to a return to the era of car bombs that Lebanon experienced between 2012–2014.
In the immediate aftermath of Hariri’s resignation, General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim rushed to Amman last week to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, keen to stress the need to keep the camps under control. Amid reports that MbS was also pushing the Palestinian leader to scupper the reconciliation agreement made with Hamas, Lebanese security officials felt this could spark tensions again inside the camps in Lebanon.
Another area of concern is a return to assassinations of political figures. “We are aware of and concerned about the possibility of assassinations,” a Lebanese security source who wished to remain anonymous told MEE, adding that triggering this particular card may lead to unrest in the streets. Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations, the most recent taking place in December 2013 of Mohammad Chatah, a close advisor to Hariri’s father, Rafic Hariri, before his own assassination in 2005.
Calm on the streets
The tensions on the streets that Saudi Arabia was banking on never materialised. In fact, Hariri’s shock resignation and subsequent lack of contact with his own party members pushed everyone, including traditional adversaries, to rally behind the president-led campaign of "Return our Prime Minister".
Following Hariri’s hour-and-half long interview on Sunday on the Al-Mustaqbal channel, the streets were full of chatter focusing on his body language, how tired and haggard he looked, how uncomfortable and tense he seemed and how much water he drank.
A statement released by the president, Michel Aoun, said: “Everything that comes out of Prime Minister Hariri from stances, steps or anything attributed to him does not reflect the truth, and is but the result of the mysterious and dubious situation he is undergoing in Saudi Arabia, and therefore cannot be taken seriously.”
Over the last week videos from nightclubs depicted clubbers chanting for Hariri, while billboards were being plastered on the streets with his image saying “Waiting For You”.
The annual Beirut marathon that took place on Sunday was officially run in Hariri’s name, with many runners holding placards saying “We Want Our PM Back” and “Running For You”.
Yet while Lebanon seems to have won this round against Saudi Arabia, this by no means signals the end of the game.
“Mohammed bin Salman has shown he is aggressive and improvises a lot in places and issues that are sensitive, and sometimes escalates without properly calculating the results,” said Barakat. “This is why this Saudi decision [to de-escalate] is neither permanent nor long term by any means, and could likely mutate into something else.”