In Depth

Why Saudi Arabia is fixated on Lebanon

In Depth: Saudis say Hezbollah rule would be tantamount to declaration of war

Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on 4 November after less than a year in office, during a fiery speech broadcast from the Saudi capital, Riyadh. 

It was a development that few saw coming - and nor did they foresee Hariri’s sweeping broadside at Shia militia Hezbollah, now one of Lebanon’s main political parties.

Saudi-born Hariri said that the Iran-backed movement had created a “state within a state” and that he feared for his life. He accused Iran of “interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries”, warning Tehran that the Sunni Arab nations “will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off”.

Hariri’s statement, and its ferocity, shocked members of his own entourage, The New York Times reports.

Days later, the crisis intensified as Saudi Arabia’s Gulf affairs minister, Thamer al-Sabhan, said that without Hariri at the helm, Lebanon would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia”.

The escalation of tension has its roots in the Saudis’ determination to curtail Iran’s influence on Arab powers.

But why are Riyadh and Beirut at loggerheads - and will it end in war?

Why is Saudi Arabia fixated on Lebanon?

For decades, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have duelled for dominance of the Middle East through “proxy wars”, supporting opposing factions in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and, in the past, Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia now “wants to escalate its proxy war with Iran”, says Al Jazeera’s senior analyst Marwan Bishara, and Lebanon is once again a natural front in that battle.

Iran has been “really pushing hard” to expand its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, established in the 1980s with support from Iran’s new revolutionary government. It remains a key agent of Tehran’s interests.

Hezbollah “is a state within a state, and does the bidding of Iran, not only in Lebanon but also in neighbouring Syria”, says Dubai-based Gulf News, summing up the Saudi perspective of the organisation, which it classifies as a terrorist group.

The Syrian civil war - pitting majority-Sunni rebels against the Shia government of Bashar al-Assad and allied militias including Hezbollah - has also fuelled sectarian tensions in Lebanon. Prior to Hariri’s inauguration, in December 2016, Lebanon was without a head of state for almost two-and-a-half years owing to bitter divisions between the pro-Assad faction, led by Hezbollah, and the anti-Assad parties in its parliament.

Did Saudi Arabia order Hariri to step down?

The Lebanese constitution mandates a multidenominational leadership - the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the House speaker a Shia Muslim, representing the country’s three main religious communities.

Hariri’s sudden resignation throws this delicate balance off-kilter - an unwelcome development in a country long riven by religious and sectarian strife.

In this context, it’s not hard to see why some of Hariri’s opponents saw his resignation as an orchestrated move by Riyadh aimed at derailing Lebanon’s fragile national unity government, in which Hezbollah and Sunni parties have ruled together in an uneasy alliance.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah faction, described Hariri’s resignation as a “Saudi-imposed decision”, says Al Jazeera. Nasrallah even suggested that the text of Hariri’s resignation was authored by his Saudi handlers, claiming that “the way in which it was executed does not reflect Hariri’s way in dealing with things”.

Tehran echoed the accusations, saying Hariri’s departure was part of a “US-Saudi-Zionist” plot calculated to destabilise the region, Press TV reports.

Regional analysts told The New York Times that Hariri was likely “pressured to resign by his patrons, the Saudis”, as they and the US increase efforts to counter Iranian influence.

Will Saudi Arabia go to war with Lebanon?

So far, there are no signs of any military mobilisation.

Hezbollah has a well-equipped military wing, which exists in parallel with Lebanon’s comparatively small official armed forces. The organisation has independently taken unilateral military action in the past, notably 2006’s month-long war with Israel, but analysts say that Hezbollah’s leader is keen to avoid an armed conflict with Saudi Arabia.

Nasrallah has called for calm and urged Hariri - alternately reported this week to either be travelling in the United Arab Emirates or under house arrest in Saudi Arabia - to return home to discuss the situation for the sake of “precious” civil order in Lebanon.

Nasrallah’s words are an attempt to “de-escalate the situation and contain it”, Sami Nader, an economist at Saint Joseph University, in Beirut, told The New York Times.

Hezbollah is also mindful of protecting the group’s own political future. If the division with Hariri and his Future Movement party cannot be healed, Hezbollah will be without a Sunni coalition partner in a government that almost certainly will be short-lived.

A Lebanese government without international credibility would present “a theoretically easier target for Hezbollah’s foes, including Washington and Tel Aviv, who consider the Shia group a terrorist organisation”, says Foreign Affairs.

In that scenario, Saudi Arabia could end up achieving its policy goals without firing a shot.

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