Lebanon again dangerously at mercy of Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry: Nahlah Ayed

From the start, the case of missing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri strayed wildly from the mainstream of the Middle East’s usual plots, the CBC’s Nahlah Ayed writes.

Mystery of missing prime minister continues even after interview

Posters depicting Saad Hariri, who has resigned as Lebanon's prime minister, are on display throughout Beirut. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

From the start, the case of the missing Lebanese prime minister strayed wildly from the mainstream of the Middle East's usual plots.

Everything that has followed Saad Hariri's sudden and reportedly forced resignation last week has struck the same startling tenor: his apparent house arrest, the Saudi Arabia-Lebanon mutual accusations of declaring war, the French president's sudden in-person intervention.

Hariri's first interview since all of this started was no exception.

Nearly 55 minutes into the interview Sunday, there was a mysterious man, caught briefly on camera, holding a piece of paper in Hariri's line of sight.

There was the accompanying look of fury on Hariri's face and the dismissive wave of his hand.

Earlier, there was that near-miss moment of him fighting back tears and his improbable insistence that he was a free man, despite being confined to his Riyadh home for days.

All the while his interviewer — Paula Yacoubian, of his party's Future TV — was repeatedly having to address online doubters who refused to believe the interview was really live.

Such is the bizarre, ongoing spectacle set in motion by Saudi Arabia summoning Hariri — a friendly — to Riyadh, where many Lebanese suspect he was forced to resign his post to put rival Iran and its Lebanese clients (Hezbollah) on notice.

Hariri is seen during the Future television interview in a coffee shop in Beirut. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

If the aim of Hariri's interview was putting his riled-up people at ease, it didn't quite work.

"My impression is that he was speaking under considerable duress, it was quite evident in both his body language and just the general look on his face," said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, echoing an untold number of Lebanese who took to the internet to say the same.

So even as Hariri insisted he would be home "within days"— thanks to swift domestic and international pressure, according to the country's relieved president — Lebanon finds itself again dangerously at the mercy of the old Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, and again facing the prospect of a new conflict.

Odd circumstances

Watchers suspect the odd circumstances may have been born out of Saudi Arabia's millennial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his revved up foreign policy, one clearly aimed at actively countering Iran's growing influence, helped in no small part by its successes in Syria.

The result though is only the newest episode in which the eternally divided Lebanon plays an old role it is never really allowed to abandon — that of a hapless battleground to greater powers.

That means despite the precarious political balance that Hariri helped achieve in the past year — and despite the flash of unity Lebanese demonstrated over his disappearance — the old differences could easily be manipulated into bubbling back.

Hariri shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh on Nov. 11, 2017, in this photo provided by the Saudi Royal Court. (Saudi Royal Court via Reuters)

Saad Hariri is, after all, the son of an assassinated prime minister, a crime in which the accused are believed to be members of Hezbollah, the only group in Lebanon to hold onto its arms after the civil war ended with his father's help.

The Hariris have always had close tries to Saudi Arabia — including citizenship.

There is also Hezbollah's dual military and political role, and for many Lebanese, its highly controversial part in the Syrian war.

Hezbollah is aligned with and supported financially and materially by Iran.

If as critics see it, Saudi Arabia has indeed pushed Hariri to resign claiming his own life was in danger, it would be an awkwardly blunt attempt at using that history to check Iran's influence.

Delicate balance

But Hariri's, indeed Lebanon's, experience advises against singlehandedly upsetting the delicate political balance in the country.

His father's killing and Hezbollah's terrifyingly swift takeover of Beirut in 2008 showed the dangerous consequences of doing so.

So, in his own words, Hariri "put aside" some fundamental disagreements with Hezbollah to include them in his coalition government last year.

Lebanese women hold placards supporting Hariri during the Beirut marathon on Nov. 12, 2017. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

It is still speculation, but it is plausible that Hariri's refusal to adopt a more antagonistic stance likely turned Saudi Arabia against him and — as his supporters believe — pushed Riyadh to hold him against his will.

But after a slew of statements from the U.S., France, Britain and other countries backing Hariri this past week, Saudi Arabia appears to be backing off ever so slightly where Lebanon is concerned. There also appears to have been a shift in Hariri's tone since his resignation — though to those who know him, none of it sounds anything like him.

He even suggested he might rescind his resignation depending on talks once he returns home.

'Backdoor channels'

Hariri said repeatedly the only way for tiny Lebanon to maintain stability is to hold onto a policy of neutrality.

In other words, for Hezbollah to stay out of the region's conflicts.

But he restricted his comments to Hezbollah's alleged role in Yemen's conflict.

This opens the door "for backdoor channels" between Iran and Saudi Arabia "to try and calm the situation, because I think any more escalation can basically send the whole region into flames," said Yahya.

"An escalation in Lebanon would not be limited to Lebanon…. Once a conflict starts, it's very hard to control."

Saudi Arabia had accused Lebanon of declaring war when a Yemeni missile landed near the Riyadh airport last week. Without Hariri in a coalition government, Saudi Arabia could effectively equate Lebanon with Hezbollah.

In turn, Hezbollah accused Saudi Arabia of declaring war by putting Hariri under house arrest.

In other words, Lebanon is once again at the cusp of another war.

The question is what form it might ultimately take.

Economic war

Saudi Arabia could strike back militarily as it has in Yemen. It also wouldn't be difficult for Saudi Arabia, or Iran, to arm local groups and encourage civil violence.

Riyadh has already waged an economic war by urging all its citizens to leave tourism-reliant Lebanon. All Arab Gulf countries have similar bans that they reiterated last week.

But Saudi Arabia could bring Lebanon to its knees with an economic blockade, or worse, sending the tens of thousands of Lebanese who work in the Arab Gulf region home — a scenario Hariri raised as a possibility on Sunday.

Lebanon cannot afford to declare a war against anybody.- Walid Jumblatt

Whatever form this new conflict now takes — and even if Hariri does indeed make it home this week — Lebanon simply isn't equipped to cope.

It probably can't withstand too many more surprises without dissolving into its usual fractious self.

"We are a country that is squeezed between two antagonistic interests," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told Reuters.

"Lebanon cannot afford to declare a war against anybody."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.