Le­banon finds it­self at cen­tre of power play be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Beirut di­ary Martin Chulov Mys­tery … the Le­banese want for­mer PM Saad Hariri to re­turn from Riyadh

In Beirut’s south­ern sub­urbs, where build­ings scarred with wars of old blend with posters of the lat­est dead, talk of an­other con­flict has taken hold. A fight on a scale not seen be­fore may be brew­ing, reckon lo­cals such as Hus­sein Khaired­dine, a barber who says he and his fam­ily in the Shia sub­urb of Dahiyeh have grown used to ten­sions over decades.

“This one’s dif­fer­ent,” he said. “It could lead to every val­ley and moun­tain top. And if it starts, it may not stop.”

The tur­moil had been brew­ing for years. But it was brought to a head on 3 Novem­ber, at a lunch in Beirut be­ing hosted by prime min­is­ter Saad Hariri. Mid­way through the meal with the vis­it­ing French cul­tural min­is­ter, Françoise Nyssen, Hariri re­ceived a call and his de­meanour changed. He ex­cused him­self and left for the air­port, with­out his aides.

Within hours Hariri, by then in Riyadh in Saudi Ara­bia, had re­signed his po­si­tion, con­clud­ing his tran­si­tion from Le­banese leader to Saudi en­voy and Le­banon’s trans­for­ma­tion from out­post to ground zero of a stun­ning re­gional es­ca­la­tion. The af­ter­math of the hur­ried de­par­ture has swept across the re­gion, link­ing ap­par­ently dis­parate events that, in re­al­ity, were symp­toms of po­lit­i­cal un­der­cur­rents that had been cours­ing through the Mid­dle East for gen­er­a­tions.

The fall of Kur­dish-held Kirkuk in north­ern Iraq to the Iraqi govern­ment, backed by Iran’s most prom­i­nent gen­eral, in Oc­to­ber, star­va­tion among the pop­u­la­tion of war-torn Ye­men, a bal­lis­tic mis­sile over Riyadh, and the ap­par­ently forced exit of the pre­mier in Le­banon are all part of the same machi­na­tions – a strate­gic power play be­tween two re­gional heavy­weights. Iran and Saudi Ara­bia are squared off against each other as a race to con­sol­i­date in­flu­ence nears a cli­max.

The shift has been led from Riyadh, where a new regime is try­ing to over­haul how the king­dom projects it­self. Six months into his job, the am­bi­tious Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man and the United Arab Emi­rates crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Zayed, be­lieve that the time has come to mus­cle up to Iran. Both in­sist that Iran’s arc of in­flu­ence has con­quered Bagh­dad, Da­m­as­cus, Gaza and Le­banon, and is mak­ing in­roads into Ye­men and Manama, with the city states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also within reach.

“Where this story starts de­pends on your van­tage point,” said a Euro­pean diplo­mat who has spent more than 20 years in the re­gion. “To the Saudis, it’s the Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion of 1979. They say that forced them to be­have ab­nor­mally, and that now things are re­vert­ing to their old ways. There is truth to that, but there is just as much truth in sug­gest­ing 2003 kicked things off. Some of the Ira­ni­ans at the pointy end of this, mean­while, might go back an­other 1,500 years.”

The foun­da­tional split be­tween the two main sects of Is­lam over whether fol­low­ers or de­scen­dants should suc­ceed the prophet Mo­hammed has long been a start­ing point for at­tempts to ex­plain the ri­valry be­tween Tehran and Riyadh. But the con­test has more re­cently been drawn along mod­ern lines of po­lit­i­cal power and in­flu­ence, par­tic­u­larly in the post-Sad­dam years.

“Sad­dam was the Sunni bul­wark,” said a Le­banese politi­cian who ad­vised the for­mer Iraqi dic­ta­tor. “That is only now be­ing un­der­stood by the Saudis, who are try­ing to po­si­tion them­selves in his wake.”

“While they dithered, Iran took hold,” said a se­nior Saudi of­fi­cial who has left the king­dom in the past year. “While they thought the US was do­ing their bid­ding, it was ac­tu­ally en­abling an Ira­nian takeover. This is now al­most com­plete. So they are right to worry. So is ev­ery­one. Things have changed in the Mid­dle East by them do­ing noth­ing about it.”

Iran now all but con­trols a land cor­ri­dor that runs from Tehran to Tar­tous in Syria, on the Mediter­ranean coast, giv­ing it ac­cess to a sea­port far from the heav­ily pa­trolled Ara­bian Gulf. The route passes through Iraq and Syria, skirt­ing the Le­banese bor­der.

“They are two months from fin­ish­ing this,” said a se­nior re­gional in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. “This changes things. It gives them an open sup­ply line to move what­ever they want. And it gives them strate­gic depth. It is a big deal.”

Among all its prox­ies, Hezbol­lah in Le­banon has been the most valu­able. Hezbol­lah is the ar­row­head of Iran’s pro­jec­tion against Is­rael. Saudi lead­ers had long placed faith in Hariri as their man to defy Hezbol­lah and as­sert the author­ity of state in­sti­tu­tions over its par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary struc­ture in Le­banon.

Their pa­tience ran out last year when the Saudi con­struc­tion sec­tor col­lapsed, along with it a com­pany that Hariri chaired. Since then, he and Saudi lead­ers have been at odds over more than $1bn. Riyadh’s new sense of cri­sis ap­pears to have put that feud on hold and in­vited Hariri back into the fold – for a price.

Heiko Wim­men, project di­rec­tor for Iraq, Syria and Le­banon for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, said: “That the Saudi lead­er­ship ever could have se­ri­ously en­ter­tained the no­tion that Hariri could ‘rein in’ Hezbol­lah ap­pears fan­ci­ful if one takes even a cur­sory look at the group’s re­la­tion­ship to Le­banese gov­ern­ments since 2005, which it ei­ther dom­i­nated, de­fied or top­pled at will.

“Nor is it plau­si­ble to as­sume Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion would com­pel Hezbol­lah to change its ways. No govern­ment can be formed with­out its con­sent.”

That the Saudi lead­er­ship could have ever en­ter­tained the no­tion Hariri could ‘rein in’ Hezbol­lah ap­pears fan­ci­ful

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.