Beirut (AsiaNews) – When he appeared Saturday on Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia state television, to announce his resignation, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, 47, gave the impression of a hostage reading a text in which he thanked his captors, saying that he had been well treated, and specified the conditions of his release.
As head of Lebanon’s government since January 2017, Mr Hariri said he feared for his life and denounced Hezbollah’s "seizure" of the country.
Of course, one can look for excuses for Saad Hariri, and say that his dual Saudi and Lebanese citizenships give him certain rights. But there is a limit to this dual allegiance when one is Lebanon’s prime minister. The announcement of his resignation from Saudi Arabia shocked public opinion as much as the resignation itself.
Since then, the mystery surrounding this theatrical decision has not yet been fully explained, fuelling speculation that he is under house arrest and is no longer free to do as he pleases. This is what Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and other leaders in his movement think.
By a happy coincidence, a Lebanese witness was at the Ritz Hotel in Riyadh just as Saad Hariri was taping his resignation speech, which momentarily reassured the Lebanese about the fate of their prime minister. But this was short-lived, as the arrest of 17 prominent Saudi personalities – including eleven members of House of Al-Saud, including one of the sons of a former Saudi monarch, and billionaire Al-Walid ben Talal – was made public on the same day. Now all these people are under house arrest . . . at the Ritz Hotel, banned from leaving the Kingdom with their private jets, grounded by royal decision.
As we wait to know more, it is still not forbidden to speculate about Saad Hariri’s particular situation in Riyadh, especially since he has not had any contacts with the Lebanese president since Saturday. That day, he only called him after he taped his resignation and a few minutes after it was broadcast, to tell him that he would be back in the country "in two or three days”.
Ever the prudent man, President Michel Aoun has since announced that he is suspending any decision regarding the constitutional consequences of this resignation, pending Mr Hariri’s return to Lebanon. We know that following a resignation from the Cabinet, the Constitution requires that the president begin consultations to form a new government.
As he waits to return on a still unknown date, and to reassure public opinion and his own supporters, Mr Hariri posted a selfie with the future ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, who had just been sworn in by the king. What is more, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the right-hand man of Saad Hariri’s father, and the ministers and members of the Future Movement have said that there is no reason to worry. Yet, the malaise caused by the prime minister’s television appearance remains, especially with respect to his claim that he had been informed of an assassination plan aimed at him.
Such a scenario is plausible, but his fears were followed up by press releases from the country's three major security services – the Army’s, the Internal Security Forces and the General Security – who said that they had no indication that an attack was being planned. Of course, they all can be wrong, but this unanimity suggests that something is missing in this affair, and that the threat of assassination could be a pretext to justify Mr Hariri’s action and his absence from the country.
So how can we understand what's going on? Politically, there is only one explanation to all this. The tsunami of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation, which everyone sought to keep away from Lebanon, has finally reached its shores and carried away, with Saad Hariri, one of the main players in the internal stability that reigned for a year. The prime minister was indeed one of two actors in a compromise that led on 31 October 2016 to the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency, after a two-and-a-half-year stalemate and presidential vacuum.
Yet, this compromise, and the stability that it made possible, have been challenged by two developments that have profoundly changed the face of the region and the world: the election of President Donald Trump in the United States (who took office on 20 January 2017), and the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman, 32, as crown prince, deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia (since 21 June 2017), and the new strongman in Riyadh. These two men are as ambitious as they are inexperienced, and the soft international status quo of the Obama era no longer suits them.
The Trump-Mohammad bin Salman duo cannot be satisfied with and stand idly by as Hezbollah thrives in Lebanon, triumphs in Syria, plots in Kuwait, trains Houthis in Yemen, and causes mayhem in Bahrain.
In Lebanon, in the past few weeks, the Saudi minister in charge of Gulf affairs, Thamer el-Sabhan, has been multiplying his tweets to denounce the "devil's party", push Prime Minister Saad Hariri to take a stand against a series of small steps undertaken by the Free Patriotic Movement and Shia Ministers towards normalisation with the Syrian Regime (including, last September, a meeting between the Lebanese and Syrian Foreign Affairs ministers on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly in New York), as well as slam the repeated attacks by Hassan Nasrallah against the House of Al-Saud.
However, Mr Hariri turned a deaf ear knowing that he was being pushed, at the very least, towards triggering an indefinite cabinet crisis, since in Lebanon, no one can govern against a whole community, and that the Shia representatives are locked in with Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian ally, the Amal movement of Nabih Berry, the current speaker of parliament. In the worst-case scenario, Saudi pressures on Saad Hariri would have meant an inconceivable civil war lost in advance, given the military capabilities of Hezbollah that two wars (2006 with Israel and 2013-2017 in Syria) have strengthened.
For Lebanon, this is a huge development and must be put in context. The resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister is no match to Donald Trump’s desire to stop Iran, nor to the threats of an Israeli prime minister who sees the Islamic Republic as the enemy to crush – encouraged in his efforts for Israeli-Arab peace prospects that are emerging in the Gulf in favour of a "settlement via development" à la Shimon Peres.
Tiny Lebanon is also no match for the immense pride – even arrogance – of an Iran that has emerged as a leading player, alongside Russia, in the new regional order. Hasn’t President Rouhani boasted recently that "nothing is now decided in the region without Iran" . . .
Suddenly, with the failure of Saudi policy in Syria, all of these tensions and contradictions have come together in Lebanon and blew up in its people’s face. Of course, government institutions will hold with a strong president at the helm – given the Lebanese people’s proverbial resilience –, likewise the Lebanese pound will also hold, this according to the Governor of the Central Bank.
Except that a caretaker cabinet on its way out will slow the rebuilding of government institutions, starting with parliament whose elections may not take place in May 2018 as expected, and is on already one mandate too many since the last elections was held in 2009. Everything will depend of course on how things will unfold, and on the possibility, if Hariri’s resignation is confirmed, of setting up a non-partisan cabinet. It is still too soon to know, but we shall have to keep in mind that the Sunni community will likely be less flexible, something that will complicate the task of the president.