Madness in the Middle East - Is Lebanon in the firing line?

Lebanese people watch an interview of Lebanon's ex-PM Saad al-Hariri at a coffee shop in Beirut on November 12. PHOTO: AFP

Just as news started to come out that the Syrian Arab Army was on the verge of liberating the city of Abu Kamal, destroying the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria, rekindling hope that the region may yet see some semblance of stability, another piece of news from the Middle East had started to make the headlines, doing the exact opposite. This was the sudden resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri only a week after his routine visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), followed by the detention of 11 House of Saud princes, four current ministers and dozens of former princes/cabinet secretaries—all charged with corruption.

Prior to his resignation and after his return from KSA on November 1, Hariri had held meetings with many regional diplomats including Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. In an unexpected move, Hariri had interestingly announced the official appointment of Saad Zakhia as ambassador to Damascus (Syria) afterwards.

About 24 hours later, Hariri was summoned back to KSA, leaving in a hurry with only two security personnel. On November 4, news came out that the PM of Lebanon had resigned in a video recorded from KSA on the official channel of Al-Saud—Al-Arabiya. According to Lebanese political commentator Marwa Osman, Lebanese people were shocked by the resignation because "there was no evidence that something was wrong with the government…whether from him or his rivals for that matter that there was something going on politically speaking inside of Lebanon that would hint to a resignation, not at all."

Two hours later, reports emerged that 11 very important princes and many others were arrested in KSA at the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Ironically, the arrestees were being detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in KSA, where they had gathered only a few days ago, when MBS had hosted his convention to introduce the robot Sophia. This has led many commentators to opine that MBS held that convention to bring all those he was planning to have arrested to KSA, so that he could have them arrested all at once.

That, however, still does not explain why the Lebanese PM was summoned to KSA and why he had resigned, but what is important to note is that according to the Saudi Minister of State of Gulf Affairs, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon were now at war because the Lebanese government was providing support to Hezbollah (Saudi Arabia says Lebanon 'declaring war' against it, Al-Jazeera, November 7). This, according to Marwa Osman, is what is concerning, "because people [outside of Lebanon and the region] cannot comprehend the fact that Hezbollah is the people…it is through the people by the people." According to her, it means that if the threats were serious, then the people of Lebanon were now in danger of having a war waged against them. 

There is, however, another explanation that has been circling among commentators. And that is, that far from going to war with Lebanon, what has been happening in KSA simply has to do with its own internal affairs and nothing to do with Lebanon or any other country for that matter. And that the decision by MBS to have the Lebanese PM detained was purely because of his ties with the Saudi prince, Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, who died in a gunfight with Saudi security personnel when they had attempted to detain him.

That still does not explain why Hariri has not yet returned to Lebanon and the true purpose behind what CNN described as a "tense and tearful" interview of Hariri by Paula Yacoubian in KSA on November 12. However, according to historian and writer Sami Moubayed, one "story presently making the rounds in Lebanon is that Hariri is being asked to testify against Prince Mutib Bin Abdullah, who is the son of former Saudi King Abdullah and heads the Royal Guard." Given his gravitas, Prince Mutib Bin Abdullah is not easily removable. Thus, as Sami Moubayed explains, "only Hariri has enough information to bring him down." 

Moreover, it is an open secret that KSA has some serious financial struggles at hand, as with the decline of oil prices (and no indication that it will rise significantly in the near future) which it so heavily depends on, it has even had to flirt with floating its national petroleum and natural gas company, Saudi Aramco. This, after it had borrowed USD 10 billion from the IMF for the first time in 10 years.   

Therefore, some analysts believe that MBS, having realised the true severity of KSA's financial problems, is indeed looking to clamp down on corruption, while trying to modernise (and bring moderation to) the kingdom which is essential to overcoming its financial struggles. The fact that the arrests of all these princes have led to the confiscation of USD 800 billion by KSA lends credence to this school of thought. 

Either way, given the nature of the problem, it is difficult to say exactly what to expect from these latest developments in the Middle East, other than that they do have the potential to create more instability and cause greater divisions in the region. What, however, must be avoided is what proponents of a third alternative believe is happening, and that is, that Israel is planning a new war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, at the same time as MBS is carrying out a purge against his political rivals in KSA.

If this is the true nature of the events that are unfolding, then there is definitely a lot to be concerned about, as this would, no doubt, again draw in regional powers (and possibly world powers if it drags on) that are becoming increasingly distrustful of each other, this time, possibly into Lebanon. Having gone through decades of civil war, followed by two failed invasions by Israel (which cost many Lebanese lives), this is the last thing that the Lebanese, who have finally managed to establish some form of stability in their own country, need.

If recent history has taught us anything, it is that smaller countries are often the victims of the power politics that is played out between bigger countries. Lebanon may just be the latest victim.

Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

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