The Saudis seem to have given the Lebanese premier a stark choice: resignation or imprisonment
By Abdel Bari Atwan
The questions which all Lebanese have been asking for the past couple of days, since Saturday’s surprise resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, are about whether a war is about to be waged on their country. When will it happen and is it imminent? Who will start it and how? What will its consequences be? And how much death and destruction will it cause?
The mood of alarm and apprehension reflected in these questions prompted Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to go on television and deliver a reassuring speech on Sunday evening, in which he sought to quell people’s fears and urge calm – both in the political arena and on the streets. He insisted Hariri’s move was forced on him by the Saudis against his will, but avoided trying to use the occasion to score domestic political points or rouse his supporters either politically or psychologically, as he has done in recent speeches.
Central Bank Governor Riyadh Salameh earlier did his part to calm jittery nerves and pre-empt any over-reaction in the markets, issuing a statement affirming that the national currency was stable and there was no reason for that to change.
Nasrallah concede that he could not rule out that the Saudis were hatching plans for an attack on Lebanon. But he stressed that this was highly far-fetched while Saudi Arabia is mired in the Yemen war and living through an unprecedented domestic crisis — following the sudden arrest of several top princes, businessmen and former and serving ministers on corruption charges. He reasoned that Saudi Arabia did not have the capacity to attack Lebanon, neither directly nor by proxy, and could only do so in league with Israel. But the latter has its own calculations: it won’t launch a war it cannot win quickly, decisively and at relatively little cost, and it certainly won’t do so on behalf of the Saudis, but only to serve its own interests and/or those of the US.
But the public welcome given by Israel to Hariri’s resignation might reflect a different reading of the situation: namely, that when it comes to confronting Hezbollah and attempting to cripple and destroy it, Saudi-Israeli collaboration is possible. It could be direct, or possibly under the shared American umbrella under whose protection both sides huddle. It should be recalled that the kingdom openly applauded Israel’s assault on Lebanon back in 2006, accusing Hezbollah of provoking and saying it should put up with the consequences.
Hariri’s resignation, announced after he was summoned to Riyadh for the second time in a week, was an American decision implemented by the Saudis. He had reiterated his commitment to remaining in office and making a success of Lebanon’s hybrid government just the previous day, and even his closest associates were caught totally unawares by his move. Nobody yet knows what happened, but it is likely that Hariri was offered a stark binary choice by his Saudi hosts with no third option: resignation or detention. He could not realistically have chosen to return to Lebanon, as he holds Saudi citizenship and is subject to Saudi laws so long as he is on Saudi soil, without the personal permission of the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman.
For Hariri is no more important or powerful than the senior princes and other top figures humiliated and incarcerated by Bin-Salman in recent days, such as Prince Mit’eb Bin-Abdallah – who was unceremoniously sacked as head of the national guard and taken into custody – or Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal – whose kinship ties and $26 billion fortune failed to spare him the same fate. The purge taking place in Saudi Arabia at present is absolutely without precedent, and there seem to be no limits on Bin-Salman’s ruthless ambition.
This being the case, President Michel Aoun – who has said he will wait for Hariri to return to Lebanon and explain his actions before accepting his resignation – may be kept waiting for a very long time. He may end up waiting forever, unless it’s true, as is being said, that the Saudis want to put together an alliance along the lines of the ‘Decisive Storm’ coalition in Yemen aimed at changing the regime in Beirut. In that case, Hariri might come back to Beirut waving a v-for-victory sign hand-in-hand with Muhammad Bin-Salman, but that is another matter.
For now, if Hariri does not do as he is told we cannot rule out seeing him hauled before a Saudi court on corruption charges. Hardly anyone who has dealt with government tenders and business in Saudi Arabia is innocent of such charges. Bribing a prince and/or minister and/or senior officials and even judges was and is the norm, and in the vast majority of cases is essential to win public sector tenders and obtain contracts. The new corruption commission would have no difficulty at all finding corruption charges to level against Hariri’s companies or associates in his extensive Saudi business empire. Moreover, the Saudi judiciary which would ultimately rule on such cases, is not exactly independent.
Lebanon faces the prospect of being subjected to more than only one war: it is being threatened with economic and financial pressures, destabilization attempts, security threats and psychological warfare as well as military attack. Nasrallah avoided saying so in his speech, in keeping with his aim of calming people’s fears. But that does not mean we can ignore this reality.
The new Saudi ‘Decisive Storm’ may still be in the development or preparatory stage. Contacts are underway and US pressure is being exerted to persuade other Arab states, such as Jordan and Morocco, to sign up to it alongside the original core countries Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. It is too early to be sure how they will respond despite the huge financial inducements involved.
As for Saudi Arabia, its behaviour at present is unlike at ay time in the past 80 years. But will it fare better against Hezbollah than it did against Syria or Yemen? We have our doubts, but it’s early days yet. Things are only just getting started.