Author: Jackson McGlinchey
On November 4, Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, announced his resignation live on TV. This announcement was not made from Beirut, however, but from Riyadh, where Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been making bold moves to consolidate power and guide Saudi Arabia toward his grand vision of reform. Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation was surprising, but not exactly unexpected. The Prime Minister, a Sunni, was presiding over a government controlled by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militia group and rival to Mr. Hariri. Additionally, Lebanese Prime Ministers have certainly resigned in the past as a political move–—including Mr. Hariri’s late father, Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated months later. However, the peculiarity of his resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, in addition to recent events in Lebanon’s neighborhood, hints at something more.
Mohammed Bin Salman has been making increasingly bold moves both within Saudi Arabia and in its neighboring countries. The diplomatic crisis with Qatar this past summer was largely a push by the Crown Prince against warming relations between Qatar and Iran. The ongoing civil war in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has recently become more heated as a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted close to Riyadh on November 4. Following which, Saudi Arabia launched its worst barrage of airstrikes in over a year. Three days later, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Saudi-backed President of Yemen, was placed under a sort of house arrest, reportedly for his antagonism toward the UAE, a strong member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Meanwhile, Bin Salman made his strongest move yet toward consolidating power internally, purging several senior ministers and princes and arresting many wealthy power-holders. All these moves hint at a much more hawkish and hardline approach toward the increasingly hostile Cold War with Iran.
Saad Hariri’s resignation appears to be, at least in part, yet another play orchestrated by Saudi Arabia to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region. With Hezbollah in a strong position in Lebanon and Syria, and other Iranian allies gaining in Yemen and Iraq, Saudi Arabia is likely gearing up for a push against Iranian influence in Lebanon. It is notable that Hariri’s resignation speech contained a heaping helping of anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran vitriol, to the surprise of the Prime Minister’s aides and even apparently Mr. Hariri himself.
So what could the resignation of the Saudi-backed Prime Minister do for Saudi Arabia? Hezbollah clearly has military superiority in Lebanon, and Iran is quickly developing a corridor of influence stretching across Iraq, through Syria, to Lebanon. So, Hezbollah–—and Iran–—has a clear military advantage. This move is seemingly a political one. With the resignation of Hariri, the Hezbollah-dominated government loses some of its legitimacy, opening it up to stronger attacks from America and Israel. Furthermore, Mr. Hariri’s resignation could be part of a move to run as an opposition candidate in the 2018 parliamentary elections, giving the Saudi alliance a chance to challenge Hezbollah politically.
Whatever the plan, it is clear that Mohammed Bin Salman is adopting an ever more hostile approach to the Cold War with Iran. As Iran continues to gain influence and Saudi Arabia digs in and fights back, the Middle East is in an increasingly precarious condition. We have seen what a proxy wars between the two powers have wrought in Syria and Yemen. We should hope that the same fate is not in store for Lebanon now.