Le­banese fear Riyadh role in PM’s fate

Con­cerns grow in Beirut that Saudi Ara­bia is us­ing Hariri in their feud with Iran

Weekend Herald - - World - Louisa Loveluck and Ka­reem Fahim

When the Prime Min­is­ter’s pri­vate jet touched down in Beirut on Thurs­day, Lebanon hoped it would bring an end to a cri­sis spurred by his abrupt and mys­te­ri­ous res­ig­na­tion, de­liv­ered in a speech from Saudi Ara­bia last week.

But the Prime Min­is­ter, Saad Hariri, was not aboard, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia and an air­port em­ployee.

For five days, Hariri has been in the shad­ows, his where­abouts and sta­tus the sub­ject of fevered spec­u­la­tion in this frag­ile state. Aides said they have hardly spo­ken to him. His own po­lit­i­cal party has anx­iously de­manded his re­turn.

A grow­ing con­vic­tion that Saudi Ara­bia is re­strict­ing his move­ments has shaken Lebanon, fu­elling fears that the coun­try, yet again, was be­com­ing at bat­tle­ground for de­struc­tive re­gional ri­val­ries.

When Hariri re­signed on Satur­day, dur­ing what ap­peared to be a rou­tine trip to Riyadh, the Saudi cap­i­tal, he blamed Iran, say­ing it had cre­ated a “state within a state” in Lebanon, a ref­er­ence to the Iran-backed Hizbol­lah move­ment that is the coun­try’s dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal force.

But the res­ig­na­tion — a dra­matic ges­ture that seemed to come out of nowhere — blind­sided Lebanon, in­clud­ing Hariri’s own sup­port­ers.

It was per­haps bet­ter ex­plained by the ten­sions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran, a feud that has sim­mered for decades and in the last few days has left the re­gion fear­ing the out­break of new wars.

Saudi Ara­bia and its Per­sian Gulf al­lies fumed in re­cent years as Iran reached a deal over its nu­clear pro­gramme with Western coun­tries and ex­panded its in­flu­ence in the re­gion, in­clud­ing in Syria and Iraq.

The 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Ara­bia, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, has helped lead an ag­gres­sive Gulf ef­fort to counter the Ira­ni­ans — most vis­i­bly by mus­ter­ing a mil­i­tary coali­tion to fight in Ye­men against a rebel group that the Saudis re­gard as an Ira­nian proxy force.

In Lebanon, there was im­me­di­ate sus­pi­cion that Hariri — whose speech echoed Saudi Ara­bia’s own com­bat­ive rhetoric — had in fact been forced to step down by the Saudis, and be­come a pawn, along with his coun­try, in the Saudi-Ira­nian feud.

“Global strug­gles and an­tag­o­nisms are of­ten re­flected in small coun­tries, and Lebanon is one of them,” said Imad Salamey, a pro­fes­sor at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity in Lebanon. “It is a com­pli­cated place be­cause there are mul­ti­ple con­fes­sional groups aligned with re­gional pow­ers and try­ing to co­ex­ist. We are see­ing that re­flected back onto the coun­try now, with more con­fronta­tion than peace.”

On Tues­day, a few days af­ter his speech, the Prime Min­is­ter was seen in the United Arab Emi­rates, a close ally of Saudi Ara­bia. Hariri, who has also long been backed by the Saudis, met an Emi­rati leader, Mo­hammed bin Zayed, who wished him “all the suc­cess in his en­deav­ours to en­sure Lebanon over­comes its or­deals and achieves the as­pi­ra­tions of the Le­banese peo­ple”, ac­cord­ing to the Emi­rates News Agency.

It seemed a strange thing to say to a politi­cian who had just re­signed.

By Wed­nes­day, Hariri was back in Riyadh, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from his of­fice, which said he met with diplo­mats from the US, Bri­tain and the Euro­pean Union. On Thurs­day, the state­ment said, Hariri re­ceived the French am­bas­sador.

There was spec­u­la­tion that Hariri was among scores of peo­ple de­tained by the Saudi au­thor­i­ties in the last week, in­clud­ing princes, of­fi­cials and some of the most prom­i­nent busi­ness­men in the coun­try. While Saudi of­fi­cials in­sist the ar­rests — of more than 200 peo­ple so far — are part of an ag­gres­sive anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign, the sweep is also widely seen as an ef­fort by the Crown Prince to elim­i­nate ri­vals and con­sol­i­date power.

Many an­a­lysts agreed it amounted to a rad­i­cal re­struc­tur­ing of Saudi Ara­bia’s po­lit­i­cal or­der, a spec­ta­cle that riv­eted the Mid­dle East.

But back in Lebanon, the anx­i­ety only grew.

“We are still in the phase of the un­known,” a se­nior Le­banese of­fi­cial said yes­ter­day. “We have been meet­ing with for­eign am­bas­sadors and no one has any rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion. No one was able to talk to Hariri be­yond: ‘Hi, how are you? I’m fine’.”

The Saudis had forced the Prime Min­is­ter to re­sign, said the of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal cri­sis.

“It’s not vol­un­tary.” Reuters, cit­ing two anony­mous US of­fi­cials, said the Saudis had “en­cour­aged” Ci­ti­zens of Beirut have shown their sup­port for Saad Hariri, putting up ban­ners that read “We are all Saad”. Hariri to leave of­fice.

In a state­ment yes­ter­day, the Prime Min­is­ter’s Fu­ture Move­ment po­lit­i­cal party said Hariri’s re­turn was a “ne­ces­sity”.

Saudi Ara­bia or­dered its ci­ti­zens to leave Lebanon “as soon as pos­si­ble”, cit­ing the “sit­u­a­tion” there, ac­cord­ing to the Saudi Press Agency.

Other Gulf states al­lied with the Saudis, in­clud­ing Bahrain and the United Arab Emi­rates, did the same.

“If any­one tells you he knows what is go­ing on, then he’s ly­ing,” said Mis­bah Ad­nan Eid, an of­fi­cial in the Beirut district of Basta.

“There is a sense of loss, a sense of the un­known,” he said.

“We don’t know when this ends.”

Wash­ing­ton Post

Global strug­gles and an­tag­o­nisms are of­ten re­flected in small coun­tries, and Lebanon is one of them.

Imad Salamey

Pic­ture / AP

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