Lebanon – A Regional Game Of Chess

Over the last few days, Lebanon has once again found itself stuck between regional heavyweights. In a shock move on Saturday, November 4th, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on Saudi-owned TV networks.

The Prime Minister cited Iran’s interference in domestic Lebanese affairs and Hezbollah’s ever-growing subversion of the Lebanese state, alongside attempts for his assassination as the reason behind his surprising decision. After all, Hariri has only been in his position for less than a year; following years of political deadlock in the Lebanese government that left it without a president, and an incapacitated parliament that was originally elected in 2009 and has extended its own term several times.

Even though Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and other security agencies have denied knowing of any attempts on Hariri’s life, the possibility of his assassination is still an open wound for the turbulent country. In 2005, Hariri’s own father and the previous Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive downtown Beirut car bombing for which no real justice was ever seen, and is considered to be a catalyst for the Cedar Revolution which occurred later that same year.

Before the latest developments transpired, Lebanon’s political progress was encouraging after parliament approved a new electoral law, and the first parliamentary elections since 2009 were scheduled for May 2018. Nonetheless, this will all possibly have to be delayed until the current cold war confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been addressed in their attempts of a Lebanese political proxy battlefield. Further adding to the uncertainty, Lebanon’s Christian President and Hezbollah ally, Michel Aoun, has announced that he will not be accepting the resignation of the Prime Minister until his safe return to Lebanon, in order to explain the details and circumstances of his resignation.

Lebanon’s political system is significantly and purposely complicated due to the post-war power-sharing pact known as the Taif Agreement – which was brokered by Saudi Arabia – sought to end Lebanon’s decades-old civil war that ended in 1990. Under the Taif Agreement, Lebanon’s’ parliament was to be split equally between Muslim and Christian members of parliament, as well as a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.

Nevertheless, the developments in Lebanon cannot be seen without the lens of a wider regional Sunni-Shia conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially due to the two equally strong Pro-Saudi and Pro- Iran camps in Lebanon’s parliament, making it Saudi Arabia’s choice of location to confront Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. As tensions have continued to rise between the two regional powers over the last few years, Lebanon is added to a long list of countries in the region that have become a victim of their confrontations, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar.

Whilst Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the USA, and Israel consider Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization, their status as a political actor in Lebanon is seen as legitimate by large portions of the population, as their political wing is a part of the government and provides and runs social services for areas in which it is able to extend its influence. The EU makes a distinction of only considering Hezbollah’s armed wing as a terrorist, with the political wing being considered legitimate.

With Iran claiming victory in establishing its influence over Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as the quagmire of a military campaign that has dragged the Saudi Arabian and UAE military into Yemen, and the failed attempt to ostracize Qatar with a blockade, Saudi Arabia has now shifted its view towards Lebanon; claiming that Lebanon has now declared war on the oil-rich kingdom for allowing Hezbollah to be included in their power-sharing government.

Saudi Arabia’s own recent changes cannot be seen as being compartmentalized away from the events in Lebanon, as the Prime Minister, who is now in the kingdom is also a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia, with large familial business interests as a part of his SaudiOger construction and telecommunication companies. In light of the anti-corruption purge that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman is waging against the kingdoms’ top businessmen, princes, ministers and security officials, Hariri’s usual critics, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have been uncharacteristically calm and measured in their response to his resignation. Instead they are claiming that Hariri was forced to resign against his will, and has now become a pawn in Saudi Arabia’s regional conflicts.

The new crown prince could be very well cementing his hold on power over Saudi Arabia, and all the areas of which its influence extends, as Hariri has flown on the 7th of June to meet Saudi’s ally, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, while the House of Representatives in the United States has also backed new sanctions targeting entities found to support Hezbollah.

While Saudi and Iran continue their dangerous Middle East confrontations, the stakes are raised, and the odds of a new unintended confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel on Lebanon’s southern border are higher than ever, possibly leading to a war that is expected to be much more destructive to both sides than the month-long war the two sides fought against one another in 2006.