Lebanese President Michel Aoun has spoken with the Saudi envoy in Beirut and demanded the return of Saad Hariri, the “former” Lebanese Prime Minister who by all accounts was forced to deliver a resignation speech in Riyadh on Saudi state-run television.
From the official Lebanese perspective, Hariri cannot formally resign unless he does so on Lebanese soil. This is the position of Hezbollah, the Shi’a Amal Movement and seemingly President Aoun’s primarily Christian Free Patriotic Movement.
Meanwhile, Fouad Siniora, a former Prime Minister from Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement has also stated that his party seeks the return of Hariri to Lebanese soil.
Ever since Hariri’s controversial resignation speech, rumours have persisted that he has been held against his will in Saudi Arabia.
French President Emmanuel Macron is in Saudi Arabia as part of an unscheduled visit where he is presumed to be seeking information about Hariri’s whereabouts.
The burgeoning unity among all major Lebanese political parties in respect of seeking Hariri’s safe passage back to Lebanon, helps demonstrate that fears of an immediate collapse of the Lebanese coalition government was largely hyperbolic.
It also vindicates my hypothesis that Hariri’s forced resignation was part of the domestic Saudi purges being led by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, rather than a calculated effort by Saudi Arabia to destabilise Lebanon. To be sure, the Saudis are indeed hoping for one last shot at meddling successfully in Lebanese affairs, but this is, from the Saudi perspective, an adjunct desire which stems from the primary goal of a deep purge of the Saudi elite.
As I previously stated,
“If viewed in isolation, the Hariri resignation appears like a clear Saudi organised attempt to foment discord in Lebanon by provoking Hezbollah, with the aim of weakening the resistance in Syria and opening up Lebanon to the kind of civil crisis which in the past has led to aggressive Israeli invasions and general strife.
However, when the events of yesterday are taken in totality, a different theory springs to mind, one which ought to be taken seriously, even if counter-intuitive at first glance.
After MBS’s ‘great purge’ of highly important figures in the Saudi ‘deep state’, including the billionaire and darling of western mainstream media, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, it is fair to say that Muhammad Bin Salman has taken the first strike against any would-be challengers or political opponents as he continues to consolidate his power, even before formally taking the throne from the elderly King Salman.
This ‘great purge’ which comes after the house arrest of former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, is a clear indication that MBS looks to turn Saudi into ‘his’ country just as Stalin turned the USSR into ‘his’ when he purged virtually all the remaining elements of the original Bolshevik leadership during the 1930s.
It is this parallel that is also important in another way. Many commentators, including contemporary Russian opposition leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has remarked that Stalin’s purges, including of the army, left the Soviet Union less than adequately prepared to stop the fascist invasion on 22 June 1941. It should be noted at this point, that MBS’ purge includes many security officials.
MBS’ purges were clearly planned a long time in advance, even though the creation of an anti-corruption committee technically took place only hours before it issued the first degrees placing powerful Saudis under arrest. The fact that MBS sought to conduct many major purges at the same time, is indicative of a man who does not intend to give his opponents any time to regroup against him. Again, this is somewhat reminiscent of Stalin who held large scale trials which prosecuted many opponents (for Stalin, traitors) at one time.
This is significant because it is generally unwise to meddle in the affairs of countries abroad, when conducting such a deep and wide purge at home. This very phenomenon has been often used to explain why Donald Trump’s foreign policy is so chaotic. Trump’s domestic distractions have disallowed the formation of a coherent foreign policy.
Of course, if MBS’ opponents had differing views on how to handle Hariri, the purge may have been an insurance policy. The more likely scenario though is that many of the men purged would not have been able to impact the Hariri decision, not least because it would mean publicly going against the narrative that Hariri resigned because he feared an assassination attempt from Iran and Hezbollah rather than because the Saudi regime told him to go. Few in the wider Arab world believe this narrative, but in Saudi, one ‘has to’ acknowledge it as true for obvious reasons.
This therefore, forces one to consider why the Saudi regime would involve itself in the Hariri affair on the same day as the ‘great purge’?
The answer lies in exploring whether the Hariri ‘purge’ was more for domestic consumption than for international consumption. As a powerful Saudi citizen, one could think of Hariri’s apparently forced resignation as the first Saudi purge of the day, on a day that saw many powerful Saudi citizens dethroned from powerful places in society.
The message to all powerful Saudis, including to Hariri, is that no one is too big to fall at the hands of MBS, even a Saudi citizen who is the Prime Minister in a foreign democracy. The fact that both Hariri and MBS are young men in a leadership role, would indicate that for the famously politically trigger happy MBS, it was also an ego boost.
What about the geo-political repercussions?
On the surface, the move will clearly enrage Iran, Hezbollah and to a degree anger Syria while emboldening Israel and extremist Sunni movements in the Arab world including al-Qaeda.
Practically though, Israel is all too aware that Hezbollah is far more powerful today than when it expelled Israel from southern Lebanon in 2006 and al-Qaeda, although making a final push in the Golan Heights with Israeli assistance, is nevertheless a terrorist group on its last legs in the Levant and Iraq.
As for Iran, while Saudi continues to spew predictably anti-Iranian rhetoric, Saudi’s pivot towards Russia and China necessarily prohibits further Saudi aggression against Iran, except for that which is limited to rhetorical statements that will irk Iran and give Russia a headache, but do little more.
MBS sees China and Russia as crucial partners that will help realise his Vision 2030 project to diversify the Saudi economy. This means that Saudi will have to increasingly play by both Russia and China’s rules, which mean abandoning proxy imperial ambitions, abandoning military threats against nearby states and possibly move towards selling energy in the Petroyuan.
Therefore, a radically different explanation for yesterday’s events in Saudi begin to emerge. Perhaps the Hariri ‘resignation’ and the great purge are meant less to encourage Israel and provoke Iran, Syria and Hezbollah than they are events used to send subtle messages to Russia and China, possibly with communiques made behind the scenes to clarify the meaning.
Such a message is summarised as follows: Saudi has surrendered in its attempts to politically influence the Levant and will allow the chips to fall where they may. The Saudi puppet is out of Lebanon and Saudi won’t do anything meaningful to oppose Hezbollah in the post-Hariri era in Lebanon. Instead, Saudi will focus on domestic political changes to pave the way for a more ‘eastern friendly’ MBS regime in Riyadh.
Here, the implied advantage to Russia is that President Michel Aoun will be allowed to form a new government in Beirut that will be more amenable to Russian and consequently Chinese interests in the region, thus giving the eastern superpowers an unbroken chain of partners in the region stretching from Pakistan to Iran, into Iraq and Syria and finishing on the Mediterranean with Lebanon.
In return, it is implied that Russia will continue to resist any US attempts to slow down MBS’ ascent to power.
To be absolutely clear, I do not believe for a moment that this is a ‘Russian plan’. Instead, Saudi is doing something whose long term outcome is naturally in Russia’s interest and Russia, a country which does not even intervene in the affairs of its enemies, will surely not intervene in the affairs of a Saudi state which is pivoting (however awkwardly) towards Russia and her partners.
I am by no means fully convinced that the second scenario is what is in fact developing, but with so much mystery as to what actually is happening it would be irresponsible not to explore such a scenario.
In all of this, it is implied that Hariri had little choice in the matter. He was merely given an offer he could not refuse by MBS and he took it. Perhaps this is why Hariri is out of power but not under arrest. Were he to resist Saudi attempts to ‘guide’ his future, he may have found that fortune would have not smiled on him in the way that it apparently has done.
In the end, scenarios one and two may both come into play, just not at the same time. Scenario one is bound to fail in its apparent objectives and thus, Saudi could then pivot to scenario two. This is in my view, the most likely explanation for what is going on. Saudi is engaging in a last ditch provocative move towards Lebanon, Syria and Iran, but this is ultimately a small stick which obscures a larger carrot intended not for Levantines or Iranians, but for Russian and Chinese stomachs.
In each case, the United States is the biggest loser”.