by Ghassan Kadi
The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri raises a number of questions.
To fast track the main relevant events of the last decade or so, Hariri was Saudi Arabia’s favourite kid on the Lebanese block. After all, his father was a close friend and a business partner of Prince Fahed, who later on became King Fahed. And because he harbours similar anti-Shiite passions like his Saudi allies, Hariri and Saudi Arabia became natural partners in Lebanese anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syria politics and partners in the ”War on Syria” at all levels; including facilitating the transit of fighters and munitions from Lebanon into Syria.
The loss of the gamble in Syria and the change of guards in the Saudi hierarchy and the elevation of King Salman and his son Mohamed (MBS) to power, Hariri found himself demoted. Not only his family did not have strong ties with the new guards, but also MBS seemed to loath him. To add insult to injury, with the down turn of the Saudi economy, Hariri’s main Saudi company (Oger) was under severe financial stress, and instead of being given the Saudi government subsidy and huge railway contract it was promised, it received zilch and it was forced into bankruptcy under the deliberate watchful eye of MBS.
Hariri was punished by MBS for his failures in Lebanon; or rather for the success of Hezbollah. And even within the fragmented Lebanon, the once star and head of the so-called the 14th of March alliance that included a huge range of Lebanese power brokers including Christian Maronite and Druze leaders, with the failure of the Syrian venture that coalition was decimated and even its Sunni component was fractured as some Sunni leaders challenged the leadership and prowess of Hariri.
To that effect, even General Ashraf Rifi declared mutiny. Rifi is the former Lebanese Police Chief. He was the power broker in the northern city of Tripoli and Hariri’s right arm in arming and supporting the Sunni militia in the locality of Baba El-Tabbaneh against the little and besieged Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen. Rifi blamed Hariri for the failure of the military venture within Tripoli and accused Hariri of weakness and declared his mutiny and formed his own power base; supported and financed by Saudi Arabia.
As a Sunni himself, Rifi did not only challenge Hariri in Tripoli and won the municipal council’s elections by a strong margin, but has also challenged the overall political status of Hariri about who is more worthy of holding the title of the Lebanese Sunni leader. For this reason, Rifi tried hard to create an image of himself as that of the tough man who will deal with difficulty and win; unlike his political opponent Hariri, that he tried to portray as a wimp.
The Saudi-Hariri impasse was only strengthened by the Lebanese presidential elections. Saudi Arabia was adamant to block the election of Michel Aoun; a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, and as his election was becoming more imminent, in an act of dismay, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Lebanon. To add insult to injury, Hariri had to engage in a deal with the new president, his former foe, and be his prime minister. At that point, one could argue that the Saudi-Hariri relationship was totally and irrevocably severed.
As a matter of fact, when Hariri was given the appointment as prime minister almost exactly a year ago, he had already lost not only his strong and powerful Saudi allies, but also his fortune and many of his Lebanese power brokers and street support. He had very little clout left, and in a country like Lebanon, leaders with no clout don’t get a bite of the cherry let alone the whole pie. His appointment however was meant to be akin to national reconciliation.
This brief summary brings us back to the present.
So what made Hariri go to Riyadh and announce his resignation, as the prime minister of Lebanon, from the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh?
Clearly, both Hariri and MBS are looking for a resurrection.
Ironically, a few hours after Hariri’s freak resignation, a Burkan H-2 Yemeni missile has reportedly hit Riyadh airport, and it seems that another one was intercepted around the outskirts of the capital. The fire that MBS started and stoked in Yemen is now capable of hitting his capital, and he has much at stake to fight for and he is desperate for all forms of Saudi resurrection; and this is why, among other things, he is pushing for reform.
But instead of MBS focusing only on his home front, ailing economy and finding a way to end the war on Yemen, he continues to enter into new and expensive ventures, and he seems determined to restore the destructive role of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon.
High on MBS’s agenda is to look for every possible way and opportunity to lash back at Iran and Hezbollah; the major allies of his Yemeni Houthi foes. He is being pragmatic, putting former differences between himself and Hariri aside, to re-establish the Saudi role in Lebanon and to re-instate its position as a major power broker in Lebanon.
On his part, Hariri would have loved to see the rapprochement happen a year ago or so, and before his Oger went belly up, a rapprochement that would have saved it, but nevertheless, Hariri will take pennies even though he would wish for nuggets. MBS has reduced him to the position of a beggar, and beggars cannot be choosers.
For someone who is already the prime minister of a country, what incentive does he need to be given to quit and what bigger fish does he have to fry by quitting the top job? These are questions that cannot be answered unless one knows how the unique politics of Lebanon work.
In Lebanon, a political leader does not have to be technically in power (ie in parliament or cabinet) to be effectively in power. Hariri seems more interested in restoring the grass-root support that he lost. That said, he originally bought this support base, yes with money and gifts, and as his fortune dwindled, so did his support base. Being a “wimp” as his Rifi rival refers to him, was not alone the reason for the slump of his popularity.
Speaking of Rifi again, it is possible, in fact highly likely, that a part of the new MBS-Hariri deal is that Saudi Arabia pulls the rug from underneath Rifi’s feet. After all, Saudi Arabia may not see in Rifi the rightful Lebanese partner. He is to some degree an independent thinker, not just a follower of orders, and he is in his mid-sixties. He will soon run out of momentum. The much younger Hariri puppet has perhaps resurrected his position with the Saudi royals in the hope of restoring his street support in Lebanon. As for his lost wealth, we will not know what the details of the new deal are, but money will be a huge lubricant.
Whatever the details of the newly-founded Saudi-Hariri alliance are, they do not have much chance of success. The battle was lost in Syria, and for Hariri to be able to pick up the pieces and reverse the situation from within Lebanon, he does not have much chance of success; especially that Hezbollah now is stronger than ever, both militarily and politically. Only an Israeli military gamble in Lebanon can potentially change the balance in favour of Hariri and Saudi Arabia. Having said that, any such gamble will most likely backfire, just like previous gambles. If Israel and Hezbollah have another showdown, and this is probably a question of when not if, the timing and location may not be of Israel’s choosing.
MBS and Hariri are more likely to achieve nothing at all with their new alliance. Apart from getting media coverage and analysis reports like this one, the most they can affectively achieve is more street riots and acts of sabotage. This time, the Lebanese security forces and Hezbollah will be on full alert and preparedness to deal with them, after all, with the “War on Syria” coming to its end and the Syrian-Lebanese borders secured already, Lebanon and Hezbollah do not need to watch their back.