Why it is too early to call Saudi’s ‘Hariri’ gamble on Lebanon a failure

When Saad al-Hariri was ‘recalled’ to Riyadh to subsequently announce his shock resignation, there was little doubt that the indignation felt by many Lebanese was warranted. If anyone needed a clearer example that Lebanon is flapping helplessly in a sea of opposing Saudi and Iranian currents, then Hariri all but confirmed this.

However, Hariri soon left Riyadh for Paris and subsequently returned to Beirut. There, he declared that he would suspend his resignation after talks with the President and it seems that talk of resignation is now dead and buried.

So the Saudi gamble failed…or perhaps not.

The Hariri episode, although an example of an increasingly erratic Saudi Arabia that is struggling to cope with a rapidly rising Iranian power, is also a very good example of the complexity of regional politics, and Lebanese politics in particular.

Saudi Arabia’s frustration with Lebanon is well known. The Lebanese government is divided into three with Christians holding the Presidency, Sunnis the Premiership, and Shia the Parliament. This balance was intended to balance factional grievances that played a large role during Lebanon’s bitter civil war.

However, recently, two of these factions have formed an unlikely alliance, restricting the ability of the third to assert itself. In other words, Hezbollah have facilitated the rise of Michel Aoun as President and have made no secret of their approval of their new ally. An Iranian official at the time of Aoun’s appointment said the choice was “a great triumph for the Islamic Resistance movement in Lebanon and for Iran’s allies and friends”.

A former general, Saudi Arabia believe that Aoun would, as part of the alliance, allow Hezbollah to exert influence over the army bringing the country’s military entirely in the hands of Saudi’s ‘enemy’. For Saudi, anyone but Aoun is acceptable but Hariri has failed to find an alternative credible candidate and convince Parliament to support him.

The ire of Riyadh cannot be understated with Lebanon. But for Hezbollah’s intervention in Qusayr in Syria, Saudi-backed rebels would probably have marched on Damascus as early as 2013. To combine Hezbollah’s militia with influence over the army would be nothing short of a disaster and Hariri’s growing incompetence has upset the whole spectrum of factions in Saudi Arabia.

After much consultation, it appears Riyadh decided that it was time to express this anger and exert some muscle. By forcing Hariri’s resignation, the Saudis forced Lebanon into a constitutional crisis that could not be ignored. By pulling out the Sunni bloc, Saudi Arabia intended to force Hezbollah into one of two choices; either cede political ground to the Sunnis to preserve the constitution, or take over the country and make de facto an actual fact which would subsequently plunge the country into a civil war where the winner takes all.

In the face of such a choice, French President Emmanuel Macron, well aware of the dynamics in Lebanon, made an urgent visit to Riyadh. One can only speculate what took place. However, whatever Macron promised Mohamed Bin Salman must have been so good that Riyadh was ready to take a PR hit and allow Hariri to fly home. In truth, there is only one thing Macron could have offered; to pressure the Maronite Christians and Michel Aoun (over whom Paris retains some considerable influence) to abandon the alliance with Hezbollah. Only by offering exactly what Riyadh wanted would Bin Salman have possibly allowed Hariri to leave amidst the media storm. Any Saudi concerns over Macron reneging on his promise could be tempered by holding Hariri’s family hostage.

With Hariri returning to Beirut and fresh negotiations between the parties, it is impossible to establish for now whether this Saudi gamble has succeeded or failed. It is clear however that Hezbollah shirked away from the prospect of civil war. This may be due to a certainty that Aoun will not abandon them, or that even if Aoun does, they remain the superior party. 
It is common in Lebanon to hear people say ‘Hezbollah brought Aoun to the Presidency’, suggesting he is not even the Maronites’ preferred candidate. If this is the case, Aoun will want an alternative support base. He is unlikely to receive this from Hariri and the Saudis. However, it is plausible that Macron may encourage the Maronite parties to back Aoun, thereby providing an alternative base that will at least make Aoun more independent of Hezbollah’s support, restoring somewhat the political balance in the country. The Saudis know they cannot force Hezbollah to disarm and realise that their ability to reel back Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon is limited. However, a more independent Aoun and a more independent Maronite faction ensures that Saudi at least maintains some sort of foothold from which to challenge Hezbollah’s control.

The outcome of the current round of negotiations remains to be seen. It is clear however that Aoun is under immense pressure from all parties; Paris, Riyadh, and Hezbollah.