Lebanon Hizbullah leader: Saudis dictated Hariri resignation

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Secretary-General of Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-militia, Hassan Nasrullah, gave a major speech Sunday in the wake of the resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri. Nasrullah characterized this step as a Saudi move dictated to Hariri by Riyadh.

Lebanon’s three big religio-ethnic groups are Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. By gentleman’s agreement dating from the 1940s, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite.

The Christians are the wealthiest group and the Shiites the poorest, on the whole.

So Saad Hariri is a Sunni. His father, Rafiq, went off to Saudi Arabia in his youth and became a billionaire. Then during the Civil War in Lebanon, in the 1980s, the Saudis sent Hariri back to Beirut as their representative. He helped negotiate an end to the war and became a long-serving prime minister himself before being assassinated in 2005.

Saad is as connected to the Saudis as his father was, though reportedly he has run through much of his inherited fortune and does not have nearly the resources that his father had.

Saad Hariri became prime minister in 2016 as part of a national unity government. Lebanon has experienced renewed social friction because of the neighboring Syrian Civil War. Lebanese Shiites and Christians have largely sided with Bashar al-Assad as a secular ruler, while Lebanese Sunnis for the most part supported the revolutionaries. When in 2013 Hizbullah went over the border and directly intervened in Syria militarily, it caused a shock wave through Lebanese society. Some militant fundamentalist Sunnis, called Salafis, based in Sidon, actually went over the border to fight on the rebel side.

So the national unity government of the last year and more was intended to tamp down those severe tensions, since older Lebanese remember the civil war and don’t want another one.

But the great Middle East Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran has pitched the question for Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Hariri see Hizbullah as an Iranian cat’s paw, and Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been confronting Iran as directly as he can without starting a war. So if he did tell Hariri to resign, it was in order to deprive the pro-Iranian Lebanese government of legitimacy.

Israel is also unhappy with the new prominence of Hizbullah, given that it more or less won the Syrian civil war by intervening. Israel wants it cut down to size, and it is not impossible that they are coordinating with the Saudis to set Lebanon up for an intervention of some sort.

Nasrullah said he was surprised by Hariri’s sudden move. He maintained that until recently, Hariri had reported at cabinet meetings that Saudi Arabia wants a stable Lebanon and backed the national unity government, and was pledging aid money for Lebanon.

Then Hariri recently went back to Riyadh, Nasrullah said, and this time he did not come back. His resignation was dictated to him by the Saudis and prerecorded so as to play on the Saudi-owned Alarabiya network, based in Dubai. It was not in his personal style. It wasn’t put out first on Hariri’s own network, Future TV (al-Mustaqbal). Nasrullah maintains that Hariri phoned his resignation in to President Michel Aoun from Saudi Arabia. So the Hizbullah leader is implying that something changed in the politics of the royal family all of a sudden, and they imposed this resignation on Lebanon through their proxy.

Nasrullah insists that Hizbullah did not desire this resignation. He said cabinet members from his party met regularly with Hariri and sought compromise on major issues.

He said that the way the resignation was carried out reflected the methods and style of intervention in Lebanese affairs practiced by the Saudi leadership, which is ironic, he said, since they are always accusing others (i.e. Iran) of such intervention.

He blamed Hariri’s move on a fierce struggle for power within the Saudi royal family.

He called for calm and an avoidance of recriminations inside Lebanon.

Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million citizens and another 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Some of the refugees are Christians and Shiites, but most are Sunni Arab and if they stayed they would alter the balance of demographic power among Lebanon’s competing “confessions” (religions and sects). As the Syrian war winds down, though I suspect the refugees will mostly go back home.

The US State Department quotes the independent research organization, Statistics Lebanon,to the effect that

28% of Lebanese citizens are Sunnis

28% are Shiites of various sorts

35.5% are Christian

5.2% are Druze (an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam that is independent)

I don’t know if these percentages are correct and it isn’t clear whether they are global projections or just adults of voting age. My guess is that at the level of five-year-olds the percentages would look very different, with Christians more like 25% and Shiites more like a third.

map-of-lebanon

In any case, Hariri’s resignation has caused a crisis in Lebanon. The Sunni mufti or jurisconsult says that no other Sunnis will be willing to serve as prime minister, in solidarity with Hariri. This is too sweeping a conclusion since Hariri has enemies and some of them would love to succeed him.

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Related video added by Juan Cole

Al Jazeera English: Inside Story – Is Lebanon on the brink of turmoil?

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4 Responses

  1. There seems to be a clear link between Saad Hariri announcing his resignation in Riyadh despite the fact that only a couple of days previously he had be in a happy and jovial mood in Beirut, and the unprecedented move against some of the most powerful and wealthiest princes in Saudi Arabia. It certainly would be a joke to suggest that Salman and his young and ambitious son MbS are engaged in an anti-corruption campaign in Saudi Arabia, because by any standard they are some of the most corrupt individuals in the kingdom. It was MbS that when he was on holiday in South of France saw a yacht belonging to a Russian oligarch and bought it on the spot for 500 million euros, while King Salman reportedly spent $100m on his holiday in Morocco in August. The two of them have been selling off Saudi Arabia’s main asset by floating Aramco, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on sophisticated weapons that they do not know how to use.

    The latest events could also be connected with Kushner’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu’s threats against Hizbullah and Iran. The young prince’s adventures in Yemen, supporting the militants in Syria, breaking relations with Iran and going after Qatar have failed and have exposed Saudi Arabia to unprecedented dangers. It seems that he has not learned that when you are in a hole you should stop digging. He is now engaged in a very high-risk strategy both at home and abroad. The latest foolish adventurism will also fail, but it may create great instability in Lebanon and in the region as a whole. Instead of encouraging the over-ambitious prince to go for broke, the wiser heads around President Trump should rein him in and prevent another major conflict in the Middle East. But the young prince does not seem capable of learning from his mistakes.

  2. What does Samir Geagea [2nd most popular and influential Lebanese Christian leader after Michel Aoun] think about all this?

    The only reason I can think of for why Hariri doesn’t want to return to Lebanon is if his life is threatened; because politically there is no edge to not returning.

    The question is who or what coalition is threatening him. What is said in public might not be the complete source of the threat.

    If indeed Khamenei has threatened Hariri (not completely sure this is the complete story), the question remains why now?

    My personal preference is that Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Iraq [to reassure Lebanese Shia], Russia, Europe, America, India, China all contribute trainers, advisors, combat enablers to the LAF. [Iran and KSA shouldn’t be allowed to contribute] UNFIL can be converted into this force by a unanimous UNSC resolution. A strong LAF would remove any excuse for Hezbollah to retain her militia; and give LAF the leverage to force Hezbollah to disarm . . . becoming a political party only. Once that happens . . . and Lebanese Shia are truly free of intimidation . . . we will find out the relative popularity of Hezbollah versus Amal . . . and Lebanon can finally stabilize. Currently Hezbollah quietly threatens and intimidates many Lebanese.

    • Wouldn’t be surprised if this was true.

      Whole thing seems to be out of character, smacks of coercion.

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