At the end of October, Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri, an ally of the West and of Saudi Arabia, went to Riyadh for an official visit. On November 1, back in Beirut, he announced that the visit was successful, and that the Saudi regime maintains its support for the Lebanese government. This government was established a year ago, after two-and-a-half years of a harsh power struggle between Sunnis and Shias, an institutional crisis that had previously made experts fear the worst for Lebanon.
Ever since the political deal struck in late 2016, which eventually led to the election of Christian President Michel Aoun, intra-religious tension decreased significantly, and the government finally managed to make some serious progress on both political and economic grounds. Hariri reassured his compatriots that Riyadh was still backing the Lebanese cross-community agreement and did not intend to jeopardize the country’s stability.
On November 2, Prime Minister Hariri hosted Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign policy advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei. After saying that Saad Hariri was “a respectable man,” Velayati reaffirmed Tehran’s support for the Lebanese government and the country’s stability.
But on November 3, Hariri indicated that he had to return that same night to Riyadh to meet King Salman. In a detail that turned out later to have a major significance, he was asked by the Saudis to come alone, without his staff, not even with his chief of cabinet.
The next morning, Saad Hariri announced his official resignation as prime minister. In an address given live from Riyadh, he stated that he refused to see Lebanon placed under “external and internal” guardianship. His announcement was followed by a strong speech against Hezbollah and Iran, with a hostility that the Lebanese hadn’t heard from him for more than a year. He also threatened to “cut the hands” of Hezbollah and Iran, while also accusing them of plotting to assassinate him.
This announcement came as a blow to politicians in Beirut. Even in Hariri’s own party, major political figures denied having any clue of what had just happened. The army, the General Security Directorate, and even the police (who usually benefit from Hariri’s patronage) all denied the rumor of an assassination attempt. Hariri’s attitude was even more confusing because of his lack of communication. Except for a few Sunni radicals, many feared for the country’s stability. Even Hariri’s political allies officially regretted his resignation and expressed a firm refusal to go back to the years of tense rivalry between the various political actors.
After Hariri’s announcement, everyone awaited the address of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, a voice that matters both inside and outside Lebanon. It was rather clear that Sunnis as well as Shias were waiting to decide whether to take to the streets or not depending on his argumentation and tone. Nasrallah gave a moderate speech filled with questions regarding Hariri’s resignation. He accused Saudi Arabia of possibly forcing his resignation but refrained from blaming Hariri.
The greatest relief came from the Lebanese people. Contrary to Saudi expectations—given the fact that a large part of the official Saudi press sounds somehow enthusiastic at the prospect of imminent Lebanese sectarian chaos—Sunni and Shia districts remained calm. Not a single gathering, blockade, or riot was reported. On Twitter and Facebook, the Lebanese people were echoing their political leaders, wishing that Hariri would have at least resigned from Beirut “for the sake of credibility” and even “out of respect.”
But 24 hours later there was strong evidence that the prime minister was held hostage in Riyadh and forced to resign. His captivity was turned into a joke on social media with some users asking Hariri to “blink twice if you were forced to read your resignation speech.” On other photo-shopped pictures, Rafic Hariri (Saad’s father and former prime minister who was murdered in 2005) was seen rolling his eyes, with the words “I regret getting married and having kids.” Shias sent sarcastic though friendly messages of support to their Sunni acquaintances and friends, recommending “in case Hariri was indeed abducted” that they should “ask for the help of Hezbollah,” an “organization well-known for their expertise in freeing hostages.”
In Tehran, officials are most likely busy opening a fine bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.
On November 6, a part of the Lebanese media finally reported that Hariri had been summoned to Saudi Arabia, against all expectations. He was placed under house arrest upon his arrival with limited and controlled access to his cell phone, and he was separated from his wife and children. Some sources claim that Hariri’s wife and children are currently banned from leaving Saudi Arabia until further notice in order to prevent any “change of heart” from the “former” prime minister after he returns to Beirut. The resignation speech was delivered in hand by Thamer al-Sabhane himself, a Saudi diplomat known for his anti-Shia tweets.
The Lebanese president and chief of parliament were said to have tried to get Hariri “ex-filtrated” with Egyptian and Jordanian help, whereas other officials, allies of the West, asked for an intervention from the French and British ambassadors. Hariri’s departure to Abu Dhabi brings no real answers: is Riyadh subcontracting the jailer’s job to the Emirates? Or is Hariri now free to go back home?
One thing is certain. The Saudi initiative was part of a larger plan to send a strong message to both Saudi and regional audiences: Hariri’s resignation, the arrest of dozens of princes and ministers, and the blockade on Yemen were coordinated to give the world a clear image of Saudi Arabia’s new posture.
In Lebanon however, things are already backfiring. The Saudi move had an unexpected result. Whereas Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon have seemed for the last 10 years incapable of sharing common ground on regional alliances, the “kidnapping” of their prime minister at the hands of his own Saudi boss managed to infuriate Hariri’s own community. On Sunday, Hariri’s party even praised Hassan Nasrallah, calling him a “responsible man” who placed above all the country’s “national interest,” a first in more than 10 years.
The entire country is now waiting for the return of the man whom the country’s officials still insist on calling “His Excellency the Prime Minister.” But if the resignation is to stand, the indignation triggered by Saudi Arabia’s demonstration of force, exceptionally shared by the Sunnis, would make it clear that Hezbollah will not have to go through much trouble to block a replacement that would overtly support the Saudis. If Riyadh’s plan of forcing Hariri to resign was to compel Lebanon to get tough on Hezbollah and push the country away from Iran’s influence, the kingdom has, at best, ejected itself from the Lebanese political game. In Tehran, officials are most likely busy opening a fine bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.