In his first television interview since his shock resignation as Prime Minister about a week ago, Saad Hariri pledged to return to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia “very soon” via his party’s Future TV. He denied rumours that he was under house arrest in Saudi Arabia, saying that he was free and if he wanted to travel tomorrow, he would. Mr. Hariri also said that he would return to Lebanon very soon and would “take all the necessary constitutional steps to resign.”
Considering the tone of his announcement a week ago, Mr. Hariri surprisingly suggested he could rescind his resignation and said, “If I revoke my resignation, there should be respect for Lebanon.” He then went on to describe how the Saudi royal family as one that has “a lot of respect for him” and that Saudi’s current ruler “sees him as a son” before stressing the point that he was free in the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and that his actions were aimed at saving his country so that it could be “in good shape.”
Just hours before Hariri’s interview, Lebanese President Michel Aoun blasted the circumstances around Mr. Hariri’s extended stay in the Saudi capital. The statement issued by his office he described the missing Prime Minister’s freedom as having been “restricted” and that “conditions have been imposed regarding his residence and the contacts he may have, even with members of his family.” Mr. Auon’s words seem to echo those of Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, who last Friday, said that Hariri was “detained in Saudi Arabia” and “banned from returning to Lebanon”.
Criticism of the current situation is coming from a broad segment of Lebanese society, which has, in the past few days, put on a show of unity. An example of this was on display during Beirut’s annual marathon on Sunday, in which thousands of participants carried slogans in support for their missing prime minister. During the event, a bright red billboard welcomed runners to the marathon’s starting line in downtown Beirut with a picture of a sprinting Hariri and the Arabic caption: “We are all waiting for you.” Hariri, who enjoys exercise has participated in previous editions of the annual event. Water bottles, caps and T-shirts were all labelled with the same slogan that read “Running for you”. This show of support extended itself to the online community as well, where participants tweeted pictures from the event with the Arabic hashtags “Run for Saad” and “Saad’s coming back”.
A week ago—on November 4th to be exact—Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship, announced that he was stepping down in a televised broadcast from Riyadh. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout Lebanon and the region. In the announcement, he accused Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the broader region, saying he feared for his life. The announcement, though, is widely seen as an orchestrated move by Saudi Arabia, as part of a strategy to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region. It is believed that Saudi Arabia wants to create a schism between Hezbollah and Hariri, who shares power with the former as part of a unity government in Lebanon. The aim, it would appear, is to neutral Hezbollah, which enjoys significant support in the country. That support translates into indirect political influence in Lebanese politics for the groups Iranian backers, in Saudi eyes (and others, including Israel). Such influence is not limited to Lebanon, with Iran having recently made significant military gains in both Syria and Iraq. Iran is also indirectly involved in the war in Yemen (which has so far killed 10,000 people and wounded 40,000 others), where it provides support to Houthi rebels currently engage in a fight against the Saudi-back government. The Houthis, of course, claimed responsibility for missile launch towards Riyadh. The Iranians stand accused of having supplied the missile. Such incidents and the uneasy relationships at the heart of them provide the lens through which we can better understand/interpret events in today’s Lebanon. Mr. Hariri’s actions over the past week, can and should be seen this way.
In the meantime, Aoun, is yet to formally accept Hariri’s resignation. He recently said that he wants to meet Mr. Hariri in person to discuss the situation. Sunday’s interview will hopefully increase the possibility of that meeting taking place. And what solution the two leaders will work out, remains to be seen. But what cannot be in doubt is that the present crisis could lead to a potential conflict in a country, which for most of its history, has found itself caught at the mercy of various interests, including that of the Saudis. They (the Saudis), have in the past supported Sunni groups and politicians in Lebanon, even when that has not always been to the greater benefit of that country. Worryingly, their perceived machinations in this latest episode, sees them reprising that role once again. In doing so, the Saudis could be laying the groundwork for an unnecessary and potentially unwinnable war, at a time when efforts should be made to end the other conflicts they’re engaged in such as the embargo on Qatar and the aforementioned proxy-war in Yemen. Unlike the Iranians, who have earned significant military victories in the region, the Saudis are in need victories of their own. If they believe that a war in Lebanon presents them with such an opportunity, it would be wise to have a re-think. For the sake of Lebanon and the region, I certainly do hope so.
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