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