A month ago, Saudi Arabia pressured Lebanese premier Saad Hariri to step down in an audacious endeavour to rein in regional rival Iran. But the aftermath brought just the opposite.
Not only did Hariri rescind his resignation on Tuesday, but Riyadh’s power play paradoxically led divided Lebanese factions to come together in order to avoid a political breakdown.
The Lebanese cabinet issued a joint statement on Tuesday to reaffirm their commitment to staying out of regional conflicts and apparently put an end to the month-long Hariri saga.
His resignation caught Lebanon and outside countries by surprise, and was seen as a direct result of the escalating power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran that has seen them square off from Syria to Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has supported Hariri for years, hoping he would fight back against Shia armed movement Hezbollah.
But in 2016, a landmark compromise deal in Lebanon cut across those political lines, bringing Hariri in as the head of a government that included Hezbollah ministers.
By the time Hariri’s premiership turned a year old, the Saudis had grown exasperated with Hezbollah’s growing influence and threatened to push back financially, a source close to the premier said.
“When Hariri travelled to Saudi Arabia (in early November), he got a huge shock,” the source said.
“He thought he was going to discuss economic projects. He found himself faced with a list of economic sanctions brandished by the Saudis against Lebanon.”
Riyadh threatened to expel 160,000 Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf and force regional businessmen to withdraw their investments from Lebanon.
“This would have been catastrophic for the country. Hariri had his back up against the wall,” the source said.
The 47-year-old premier wrote his own resignation announcement, crafting it in a way he thought would appease the Saudis.
“He was not a prisoner in the literal sense but the Saudis told him, ‘if you go back to Lebanon, we’ll think of you as Hezbollah, and your government as an enemy,’” the source said.
Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs said Riyadh’s plan spectacularly backfired.
“The Saudis wanted to send a powerful message demonstrating their determination to push back on Iran’s foray into the Levant,” said Bitar.
“But it produced a real boomerang effect.”
After his resignation, Hariri spent two weeks in Riyadh amid furious speculation he was being held “hostage” there by Saudi authorities.
Eventually, he returned to Beirut, put his resignation on hold, and dove into consultations with political rivals.
On Tuesday, he held his first ministerial meeting since his return, declaring he had rescinded his resignation and that Lebanon remained committed to “disassociation,” or neutrality in regional conflicts.
“As fictitious, provisional and fragile as it is, this forced rapprochement between the two Lebanese camps is necessary and welcome, since security and economic risks are real,” Bitar said.
He expected Riyadh would continue demanding Hezbollah withdraw its forces from Yemen.
Back at the helm, Hariri will attend crisis talks in Paris tomorrow with top foreign officials, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
But if the Saudis pursue their policy of “one-upmanship,” Bitar warned, “France and Europe may not be able to do much to protect Lebanon from the escalating dangers on the regional level.”
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