The bizarre resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Saudi state media has opened up another battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance. Hariri said his life was in danger, pointed the finger at Iran and by extension the Shia sectarian Hezbollah, one of his government’s coalition partners.
Hezbollah is backed by Iran and a vital component of the Assad regime’s campaign to crush the Syrian opposition. Iran has now drafted in Hezbollah to help arm and train Houthi rebels in Yemen. Hariri presided over a national unity government. His own party, the Sunni Future Movement, has strong ties to Saudi Arabia. He has been viewed as the Saudis’ man in the Lebanon. But his relationship with Hezbollah seems to have soured only recently, despite the fact that his father was assassinated by Hezbollah.
He had formed a coalition government with Hezbollah and had praised their efforts to keep al-Qaeda and other Sunni salafi groups out of Lebanon. He also supported the appointment of Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, as President. Michel Aoun has refused to accept the resignation until it is made on Lebanese soil.
Hariri seems to have played a useful role for the Saudis in their rivalry with Iran. Both Trump and Netanyahu described the resignation of Hariri as proof of the growing and dangerous influence of Iran in the region. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is in increasing political turmoil after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched an “anti-corruption” campaign, arresting and detaining other princes, and current and former ministers on charges of corruption.
The main drive here will be to consolidate power for Bin Salman, who is also the chief architect of the war in Yemen — a conflict that pitches Saudi Arabia against Iran. Within the Saudi ruling family and state apparatus there are divisions on the conduct of the war and the growing tensions with Iran.
Bin Salman is stamping his authority over the current direction of the state. Increasing rhetoric from Saudi Arabia against Hezbollah was ramped up in the week prior to Hariri’s resignation. Saudi Minister of State for Persian Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan said; “All of those who work and cooperate with it [Hezbollah] politically, economically and through the media should be punished.”
Hariri arrived in Saudi Arabia, where he holds dual citizenship, and resigned. He has promised to return to Lebanon very shortly. The fall out from these events will not be positive for anyone in the region