Mid­dle East on ten­ter­hooks as a prince goes on a rampage

Hariri was ap­par­ently kept under ‘house ar­rest’ on the or­der of the Crown Prince, Sal­man, not known for car­ing about diplo­matic pro­pri­eties. It seems that Hariri is ALSO AC­CUSED By HIS HOSTS OF COM­MIT­TING FRAUD. RU­MOURS ARE THAT THE LE­BANESE PM wAS THREAT

The Sunday Guardian - - Covert -

Dur­ing my last visit to Le­banon in last Septem­ber, I was told that the long trou­bled coun­try had en­tered a pe­riod of frag­ile but promis­ing sta­bil­ity. The old magic po­lit­i­cal for­mula to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween the ma­jor com­mu­ni­ties had been fi­nally achieved, thanks to the Chris­tian, Syr­i­afriendly Pres­i­dent, Gen­eral Michel Aoun, the Sunni Saudi dual ci­ti­zen Saad Hariri and the vet­eran House Speaker and chair­man of the Shia Amal Party, Nabi Berri, sup­ported by Hezbol­lah.

The eco­nomic cli­mate re­flected the new con­fi­dence in the fu­ture through a wide­spread con­struc­tion boom fu­elled by over­seas in­vest­ments (al­though Gulf monar­chies of­fi­cially did not in­vest). So­cial life glit­tered in the af­flu­ent neigh­bour­hoods and op­u­lent man­sions in and around Beirut, and the con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion habits of the Le­banese were on full dis­play in the elec­tri­fy­ing night life. Not far from large por­traits of black garbed Shia cler­ics, I came across droves of nat­tily dressed youths cruis­ing in sleek sports cars. The at­tires of some of the fa­mously at­trac­tive lo­cal girls were as skimpy and provoca­tive as any in Capri, Mykonos or Ibiza, and the many bars and cafes, charg­ing Paris-level rates, were crowded with hookah­puff­ing pa­trons boast­ing the lat­est smart phones and prici- est de­signer out­fits.

Danc­ing on a vol­cano is the na­tional sport of the Le­banese, at least of the well-todo, but the po­lit­i­cal vol­cano erupts ev­ery now and then, on land or in the sky. I had an echo of it when while in Si­don, the an­cient Phoeni­cian em­po­rium, which is the fief­dom of the bil­lion­aire Hariri fam­ily, a se­ries of deaf­en­ing booms trailed the pas­sage of Is­raeli fighter jets that make it a point to reg­u­larly vi­o­late Le­banese airspace just to show their im­punity and arouse pop­u­lar anger.

Then, ear­lier this Novem­ber, the ap­par­ent calm was shat­tered. Pre­mier Hariri, son of the as­sas­si­nated Prime Min­is­ter Rafic Hariri, who must be given credit for plan­ning and or­ches­trat­ing the re­build­ing of Beirut, went to Saudi Ara­bia, his sec­ond home after pay­ing a visit to Iran, where he had held cor­dial talks with the na­tional lead­er­ship in Tehran. How­ever, in the mean­time, a mis­sile fired by the Houthi fight­ers from Ye­men was shot down by Riyadh’s Pa­triot air-de­fence bat­ter­ies over the in­ter­na­tional air­port. The in­fu­ri­ated Saudi rulers turned on Hariri, whom they ac­cused of ap­peas­ing the Ira­ni­ans, in­stead of stick­ing to their agenda to fight the hated Shias of Hezbol­lah, al­leged to be be­hind the Houthi re­bel­lion.

Hariri, kept in­com­mu­ni­cado in Riyadh for half a day, was com­pelled to make a state­ment on the King­dom’s na­tional tele­vi­sion to ve­he­mently con­demn Iran and an­nounce his res­ig­na­tion as Prime Min­is­ter be­cause of un­spec­i­fied threats to his life. He was ap­par­ently kept under “house ar­rest” on the or­der of the Crown Prince, Muham­mad bin Sal­man, not known for car­ing about diplo­matic pro­pri­eties. It seems that Hariri is also ac­cused by his hosts of com­mit­ting fraud through his fam­ily’s con­struc­tion com­pany, which is in se­ri­ous trou­ble due to Saudi Ara­bia’s eco­nomic cri­sis. Ru­mours are that the Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter was threat­ened with fi­nan­cial ruin, if he did not com­ply with in­struc­tions to some­how snap the Ira­nian con­nec­tion of his coali­tion. The fact that he holds a Saudi pass­port places him under the author­ity of the Crown, and Hariri, a cul­tured and suave Le­van­tine, evinced his dis­com­fort and fear on an in­ter­view on a Le­banese news chan­nel in which he promised to re­turn to his coun­try soon.

De­tain­ing a for­eign head of gov­ern­ment has al­ways been a ca­sus belli and most Leba- nese were out­raged. Pres­i­dent Aoun re­fused to recog­nise the res­ig­na­tion from abroad and the en­tire Cab­i­net and Par­lia­ment de­manded Hariri’s re­turn. Aoun (a staunch ally of France, like most Ma­ronites), who re­cently vis­ited Paris on a state visit, asked the French Pres­i­dent, then in the United Arab Emi­rates, to in­ter­vene. Em­manuel Macron ac­cord­ingly flew to Riyadh and po­litely asked the Crown Prince to let Hariri go, but got no more than an eva­sive as­sur­ance that the Le­banese states­man was free. Macron’s role was del­i­cate be­cause he had just been hosted by Crown Prince Mo­hammed of Abu Dhabi, a gen­er­ous client of France, re­garded as a men­tor of the am­bi­tious Saudi heir, and who sup­ports the lat­ter’s shakeup of the Saudi regime. Also, some of France’s tra­di­tional friends in the royal tribe are under ar­rest and in­ves­ti­gated for em­bez­zle­ment, which might well re­late to arms and other deals with the République and other west­ern part­ners. Even­tu­ally, Hariri left for France and ended up back in Le­banon in time for In­de­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tions. He “sus­pended” his res­ig­na­tion on the in­sis­tence of Pres­i­dent Aoun and asked for all po­lit­i­cal mem­bers of the rul­ing coali­tion to work to­gether to pre­vent a ma­jor cri­sis, or in other words to pla­cate the Saudis.

Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man acts and speaks as if he wished to be his coun­try’s Pe­ter the Great or Ataturk, a ruth­less mod­ernising re­former, who grabs all power and brooks no op­po­si­tion. Yet, as can be ex­pected of an in­ex­pe­ri­enced and pam­pered 30-some­thing-year-old, his style of lead­er­ship has been tyran­ni­cal, but er­ratic. Un­til re­cently, he resided mostly on a private is­land in the Mal­dives from where he mon­i­tored the dis­as­trous Ye­men war, with­out both­er­ing to con­sult the other princes in charge of mil­i­tary af­fairs. Al­though he called for aus­ter­ity in pub­lic ex­pen­di­tures, he bought for US$500 mil­lion a su­per-yacht from a Rus­sianIs­raeli oli­garch and launched a $500 bil­lion scheme for a new city, which looks on pa­per like a clone of Dubai. His cam­paigns to bully Qatar and bat­ter Ye­men into sub­mis­sion have failed and he is even less likely to get Hezbol­lah to ca­pit­u­late and Iran to de­fer to his wishes.

The Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter has been made to look like a pup­pet on a string by his Saudi spon­sors and may se­cretly as­pire for re­venge against Riyadh. Apart from ap­par­ently fail­ing to suc­ceed in his at­tempted coupby-proxy in Beirut, the Crown Prince seems, so far, to have botched the plan to make a part of the Saudi Aramco stock pub­lic, while the slew of high level ar­bi­trary ar­rests at home has caused con­sid­er­able disquiet in the business and po­lit­i­cal cir­cles at home and out­side. Like­wise, many in the Wah­habi re­li­gious hi­er­ar­chy are shocked at the im­pris­on­ment of fel­low Ulema. Yet, at the same time, the new master of the king­dom is ratch­et­ing up ten­sions with Iran and Qatar, wor­ry­ing Jor­dan and Egypt, alien­at­ing Iraq and has made a vir­tual en­emy of Tur­key’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, whose ad­vis­ers openly ex­co­ri­ate the Saudi Prince’s “pro-Is­rael, pro-Amer­i­can” pledge of Is­lamic re­form. To make new friends, the prince has wooed Rus­sia and China with busi- ness deals and prom­ises and has struck an agree­ment with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to bring world oil and gas prices up for mu­tual ben­e­fit. Yet, he is only be­ing given the ben­e­fit of the doubt by those pow­ers. Prince Muham­mad’s ap­par­ent reck­less­ness, how­ever, has found sup­port in US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who early saw him as a po­ten­tial ally within the Saudi royal clan, long aligned with the Bush and Clin­ton fam­i­lies. Trump does not for­get in­sults and at­tacks. He has not for­given the dis­mis­sive com­ments voiced against him by some of the off­spring of King Ab­dul Aziz, nor is he un­aware of the mas­sive dona­tions they made to the Clin­tons and their foun­da­tion. He hence rel­ishes the ar­rests or­dered by Muham­mad, who or­gan­ised the US Pres­i­dent’s of­fi­cial visit to Riyadh a few months ago and pledged full fi­nan­cial sup­port for Trump’s do­mes­tic eco­nomic agenda. The prospect of a sin­gle dy­namic in­di­vid­ual be­ing in charge of the king­dom, in place of a me­dieval coven of se­cre­tive and in­scrutable harem-born plu­to­crats could not but ap­peal to the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent, who read­ily ad­mires au­to­cratic rulers. He ac­cord­ingly took the young royal under his wing, so to speak, and asked him to work with his son-his-law, Jared Kush­ner. The grow­ing co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Crown Prince’s poli­cies and the Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu gov­ern­ment’s designs in the re­gion may re­flect this con­cer­ta­tion. That the State Depart­ment, the CIA and other agen­cies of the US gov­ern­ment are not all happy with Muham­mad’s un­pre­dictable fiat de­ci­sions won’t in­flu­ence Trump, who has made it his trade­mark to con­tra­dict and ig­nore his own ad­min­is­tra­tion and whose main goal is to pull the US out as far as pos­si­ble from the com­bustible re­gion, and let­ting the Saudis, the Is­raelis and other tra­di­tional US al­lies fend for them­selves.

The ques­tion now is what will come from the Saudi multi-pronged attack against Iran and its al­lies, backed by Is­rael’s pol­icy aimed at push­ing the pro-Tehran fac­tions out of the Le­banese gov­ern­ment and still hop­ing to bring about a col­lapse of the As­sa­dled Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, even though the cur­rent US ad­min­is­tra­tion is not com­mit­ted to those two ob­jec­tives. Iran, a past master at de­cep­tion, sub­tle diplo­macy and covert op­er­a­tions has plans of its own which do not bode well for the Saudi regime. To be con­tin­ued

Prince Muham­mad’s ap­par­ent reck­less­ness, how­ever, has found sup­port in US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who early saw him as a po­ten­tial ally within the Saudi royal clan, long aligned with the Bush and Clin­ton fam­i­lies.

REUTERS

Saad al-Hariri, who sus­pended his de­ci­sion to re­sign as Prime Min­is­ter, ges­tures to his sup­port­ers at his home in Beirut, Le­banon, on Wed­nes­day.

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