Saudi Arabia Has No Lebanon Endgame in Sight - and It's Bound to Backfire

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Lebanon’s Hariri family is on a wild roller coaster ride whose end is nowhere in sight. The head of the family, Saad Hariri, quit – or maybe was fired – his post as prime minister of Lebanon and is now under luxurious house arrest in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.

The plan is to send Saad Hariri back to Beirut to submit his official resignation letter, from where he will go to a European capital – most likely Paris – and then leave politics, wrote the Beirut-based Al Akhbar daily newspaper, which is considered to be close to Hezbollah.

 

The Hariri family never expected such a move and is in no rush to respond to the Saudi invitation. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – Saad and Bahaa’s father, who was assassinated in 2005 – was the one who chose Saad to carry on his political legacy over his older brother. Saad was supported by Nazik, Rafik’s second wife (who is not the mother of either Saad or Bahaa). It seems he cannot refuse the Saudi demand because his freedom depends on the success of these moves. And not only his freedom: Alongside the diplomatic manipulations planned by Salman, Saad Hariri seems to have taken in over $9 billion in payment for projects carried out by his family-owned construction company, Saudi Oger.

SaudiArabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud chats with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 8, 2017.

The Saudis say the money was paid to the company illegally by Khalid al-Tuwaijri, who was chief of the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia under the previous monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and was the highest ranking Saudi official who was not a prince. Tuwaijri was quickly removed from the post when King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman took the throne in 2015, and is now under arrest along with a very long list of Saudi princes and ministers.

Saad Hariri turned out to be an unsuccessful company manager and this failure reached its peak in July, when Saudi Oger went bankrupt and closed down, firing all its employees. The Hariri family has no doubts that Mohammed bin Salman hastened the collapse of the company, since Saudi Arabia could have provided funds to the firm and enabled it to continue operating, as it has done in many other cases of well-connected Saudi businessmen running into financial troubles.

We don’t need to worry about Saad Hariri making a living. He still has a few billion dollars left in bank accounts all over the world, which will make his retirement a rather comfortable one. Bahaa, too, cannot be considered deprived. The older Hariri is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion. He owns a real estate company that operates in Jordan along with another flourishing real estate company in Lebanon.

Supportersof Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on the starting line of the Beirut marathon, November 12, 2017.

The two brothers don’t seem to have great love for each other. Bahaa has not forgotten the humiliation he suffered when his father chose his younger brother over him, and he has never spared Saad from his harsh criticism over his political and economic actions. The Hariris can now comfort themselves with the thought that at least Saudi Arabia has not completely renounced the family and still sees them as a steadfast base to continue with their influence in Lebanon.

But the dish that Mohammed bin Salman is preparing may just wind up burned and overcooked. The young prince must not only convince the Hariri family but also Hariri’s Future Movement bloc that they need to adopt this U-turn – and not everyone in the party is willing to bow down to the Saudis.

Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a senior member of the Future Movement party, responded to the reports on the intention of appointing Bahaa as prime minister by saying, “We are not a flock of sheep whose ownership can be transferred from one person to another.” But Machnouk, who was a senior adviser to Rafik Hariri, knows that challenging the Saudi decision could cost Lebanon dearly.

Saudi Arabia imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon a year and a half ago, froze its $3 billion in aid for the Lebanese armed forces and halted business deals between the two countries. Today, Saudi Arabia can impose even more painful punishments on Lebanon. Over 400,000 Lebanese citizens work in the Gulf states and they transfer some $2.5 billion a year back to their homeland. If the kingdom decides to enlist its neighbors in the Gulf to join these sanctions, it could be a deathblow for the Lebanese economy.

But solely economic pressure may not be enough to force a change in government. According to the Lebanese constitution, the appointment of a prime minister is in the hands of the president, and current President Michel Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah. Tradition has always dictated that the prime minister's appointment requires consultation with and agreement between all the sides. So even if the Hariri family and the Future Movement agree to bow to the Saudi pressure, Hezbollah and its allies in the government and the parliament can still stymie the appointment of Bahaa Hariri and trap Lebanon in a political and economic dead end.

It is not clear what Saudi Arabia would gain from such a stalemate, particularly when Lebanese public opinion has begun to turn to outrage over the crude and unprecedented intervention in the country’s internal affairs. It is possible the kingdom is betting that the economic pressure will force Hezbollah to give up its political strongholds, damaging Iranian interests in the process, but at the same time Iran can replace Saudi Arabia as Lebanon’s economic sponsor and compensate for the economic damage caused by the Saudis.

Saudi hints at a military option against Lebanon – hints that Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has already used to declare that a military alliance exists between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Israel will be the one who attacks Lebanon – cannot really impress anyone. The opening of another front in Lebanon, in addition to the failed war Saudi Arabia is running in Yemen, is a nightmare for the international community, too.

Does Saudi Arabia have any endgame in mind for the process it has started in Lebanon? If it does, it has hidden it quite well.

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