In the latest events unfolding in the political struggle between Beirut and Riyadh, the latter, in conjunction with the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait, has advised its citizens residing or visiting Lebanon to leave immediately, and those who intend to travel to the country to reconsider their itineraries. This comes after Saudi Arabia was accused of forcibly detaining the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and pressuring him to resign early last week.
The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) stated on their website on Thursday, November 9 that “due to the situation in the Republic of Lebanon, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Republic of Lebanon asks visiting and resident Saudi citizens in Lebanon to leave it as soon as possible”. No further explanation was given as to the reasoning behind the abrupt warning, however, according to the New York Times, such a warning has been given several times in the last five years. Hariri’s resignation follows the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in recent weeks via the arrest of several hundred Saudi citizens over corruption charges. It has been argued that taking Hariri “hostage” was a way of diverting media attention to drown out these allegations of purges in Saudi Arabian politics.
If President Hariri’s stepping down was indeed spurred by his being held against his will in Riyadh, are we really to believe that Saudi Arabia would consider discrediting one of their most important supporters and biggest critics of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival? Reuters has reported that Saad Hariri is no longer up to the task of challenging Hezbollah in Lebanon, and plans are in place for Saudi Arabia to position his older brother and billionaire Bahaad Hariri within Lebanese politics. If true, such an answer attests to the cynical political calculations and the lack of concern for regional stability on the part of the Gulf kingdom. An alternate hypothesis is that in his resignation speech on 4 November, he stated that Hezbollah drove him to this decision to step down and leave for Riyadh out of concern for his safety, though while this may explain the suddenness of his departure, it does not explain the reason for his silence after such a long period of time.
It is impossible to discuss Lebanese-Saudi antagonism without situating the position of Hezbollah with wider Middle Eastern politics. Hezbollah is a Shi’a Islamic political and militant faction in Lebanon, fundamentally opposed to Saudi Arabia and Israel while being backed by Iran and sharing close ties to the Syrian government under the Al-Assad family. Though the organization is labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist group, the EU recognizes its political subdivision as a legitimate entity. The group has previously come under UN investigation for the assassination of former Prime Minister and father of Saad Hariri, Rafic Hariri in 2005, though to this day it denies these allegations.
Ultimately, the way of resolving this issue is determining under what circumstances Hariri being kept in Riyadh. The situation is further undermined by Hariri’s own apparent unwillingness or inability to publicly alleviate concerns both within Lebanese politics and society, as well as those of the entire region. In this context of political ambiguity, advising its citizens to stay away from Lebanon may be interpreted as a simple precaution on the part of Saudi Arabia. However, while military aggression has been ruled out by a number of analysts, this does not mean that there will not be a severe political backlash within Lebanese politics as both supporters and adversaries of Hariri describe his resignation as illegal and rightly demand his immediate return.
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