BY: MICHAEL GERINI
The past week in Riyadh has brought us a palace coup and saber rattling. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidates power by arresting members of the Saudi royal elite, his foreign minister has issued bellicose statements towards Lebanon, whose Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned just days ago. Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan has said that Lebanon will “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia” due to the unchecked influence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese Parliament.
WHY IT MATTERS:
While there is a low likelihood of Saudi jets striking Beirut in the near future, these statements invoking war attempt to accomplish several Saudi goals. By law, the Prime Minister of Lebanon must be a Sunni Muslim and Saudi Arabia is the benefactor of most Sunni parties in Lebanon. With the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be able to pick his own man from among the vassal parties to fill the vacant position. This will further his consolidation of power as he demonstrates his control over regional affairs as well as domestic. Saudi Arabia views the Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran, and as such, a direct threat to Saudi dominance in the Middle East. Moreover, the next Prime Minister will have to confront the Hezbollah or risk bad relations with Saudi Arabia. This is a daunting task that no Lebanese administration has attempted to approach let alone take on outright. Saudi Arabia’s attempts of provocation aims to end the laissez-faire attitude towards Hezbollah, which has become the norm in Lebanese politics. The Saudis want to make the Lebanese aware that the consequences of not dealing with Hezbollah are just as dire as the consequences of dealing with them. At the same time, the Crown Prince is attempting to amass power and make a strong showing of his power in the Middle East. Hariri’s resignation comes at the heels of a public anti-corruption crackdown in Saudi Arabia, which is no coincidence.
Nearly every political party in Lebanon has a foreign nation as its main patron. Hezbollah’s patron is Iran. With the faux declaration of war, Saudi Arabia has now extended its regional proxy war with Iran to Lebanon. The kingdom appears to be losing this proxy war, making it necessary to change its tactics. The consequences of the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri and the Saudi statements about war are unclear. Lebanon has recently gone through a period of two years without a president and over a decade without an official budget. The country may very well endure a term without a Prime Minister. This possibility will certainly impede Crown Prince Salman’s ability to leverage control of Lebanon into an anti-Iranian satellite. Notwithstanding the impact the move had on Lebanese politics, Middle East politics will be greatly impacted by this move as Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war expands to other states in the Middle East. Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia are all instructing their citizens to return from Lebanon immediately. As the crisis in the Middle East deepens, it will be extremely important to note the expansive effect of the KSA wielding its power.