Yesterday was among the most strange of days in recent Saudi history. It started with the shock resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi citizen Saad Hariri shortly after he met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and ended with the announcement that 11 princes, 4 serving ministers and around 30 ministers in total have been arrested on corruption charges, ostensibly as part of Muhammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) sweeping “reforms” to the Wahhabi Kingdom.
In between these events, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile which nearly hit King Khalid International Airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, before being intercepted by a Saudi missile. Later, Saudi media stated that the Houthi rocket was an attempt on Hariri’s life, a claim which seems quite outlandish given the crude nature of Houthi weapons.
At the end of the day, it appeared that Saudi is politically less stable than Lebanon, something that has hardly ever been the case in modern history, let alone at a time when one would assume it is Lebanon that is about to be plunged into new chaos, not the formerly predictable Wahhabi regime.
In putting the pieces of this puzzle together, it is important to explore both obvious, subtle and counter-intuitive hypotheses for what all of this means. Here are three interpretations:
1. The last gasp of Saudi, Israeli, US ‘regime change’ this time aimed at weakening Hezbollah
Saad Hariri was thought of as a kind of Saudi puppet in Beirut by his detractors and to be sure, he has many detractors in Lebanon. Hariri represented a pro-US, ‘soft’ on Israel, deeply anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian, pro-Saudi Lebanese politician that was opposed by the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian President Michel Aoun, the Shi’a Amal Movement, as well as the primarily Shi’a but increasingly popular Hezbollah. To be sure, Hariri’s Future Movement does have its large share of support among mainly Sunnis favouring a more pro-Gulfi/neo-liberal style of politics. Such is the nature of sectarian Lebanese politics.
Hariri’s resignation speech, during which many have remarked that he appeared to be hurried and uncomfortable, has already gained infamy for being little more than an anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah tirade, the kind of which is typically given by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The orthodox interpretation of the speech is something I described yesterday in the following way:
“The speech came shortly after Hariri met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman and only hours after the CIA published suspicious documents which perversely try to link Iran with al-Qaeda.
The fact of the matter is, as everyone except the CIA seems to know, that al-Qaeda is a declared enemy of Iran and Iran is a declared enemy of al-Qaeda, both in terms of geo-strategic interests as well as ideology.
In 1998, Iran almost went to war with Afghanistan to avenge the slaughter of Iranian diplomats by al-Qaeda who at the time were headquartered in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.
More recently, Iran has fought with Iraqi and Syrian troops in their war against al-Qaeda and ISIS, an organisation which was founded by members of a group called al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Moreover, Iranians are targeted by al-Qaeda terrorists across the world in a ruthless fashion.
The absurdity of the CIA’s claim that Iran and al-Qaeda had attempted to work together is not only insulting to those with a sense of reality, but it obscures the fact that in Syria and Libya before that, the US has allied itself with al-Qaeda forces. The US in fact founded al-Qaeda in the 1980s when it was known as the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen. Members of the group even met with Ronald Reagan in the White House.
In spite of supporting al-Qaeda in Syria and Libya and helping to form what became al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the US is now trotting out al-Qaeda as a kind of strange boogieman in order to whip up tensions against Iran, a country which like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Gaddafi’s Libya, was totally opposed to the group.
The supreme disinformation campaign by Mike Pompeo’s CIA has now been effectively regurgitated by the aloof and increasingly unpopular Saad Hariri.
Hariri’s resignation will be welcomed by his many opponents, including perhaps, Lebanon’s Christian President Michel Aoun, who has been working to restore Lebanon’s ties with Syria after a personally touch-and-go relationship with Damascus over the decades.
However, the style of Hariri’s resignation is deeply irresponsible as his speech contained inflammatory sectarian rhetoric which could potentially set off a Sunni extremist uprising in a country which was ripped apart by a 15 year long civil war.
There remains a further danger that Hariri’s anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran tirade was calculated in order to provoke a wider conflict in and around Lebanon involving Hezbollah, Israel and Sunni terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
It is also clear that as the war against Takfiri terrorism in western Iraq and eastern Syria is being won by Syria and Iraq, those who continue to seek the destabilisation of Syria and the wider Levant, are now doing so by trying to sow discord in western Syria.
This has manifested itself first of all, in the al-Qaeda offensive on the Golan Heights, assisted by Israeli artillery attacks and secondly, with the resignation of Hariri in Lebanon, which is a move designed to draw Syria’s Hezbollah ally into a new sectarian conflict. These two events crucially happened within 24 hours of one another.
I’m inclined to believe that the attempt to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war will ultimately fail, it is also important remember that this is in many ways the last stand for the ‘regime change’ policy still favoured by Saudi, Israel and the US. The west in particular has been interfering with Lebanon’s internal situation dating from a time when they were still hesitant to fully provoke Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
If they fail in Lebanon, that means that there are no other stops left on the regime change train–certainly no easy ones seeing as the US, Israel and Saudi are still (thankfully) too afraid of attacking Iran directly.
It seems clear enough that Hezbollah will not take the bait and be provoked into taking measures that could lead to instability. Hezbollah, after all, does not need to respond to such provocations, because in Syria and elsewhere, Hezbollah are winning and Hezbollah continues to gain popularity in Lebanon, even among non-Shi’a Muslims. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s leadership are far more intelligent than many in Saudi wish that they were.
So while Hezbollah and other parties in Lebanon including the Amal Movement and President Michel Aoun’s FPM will not feed the chaos as Saudi and Israel are clearly hoping, what is clear is that Saudi and its de-facto allies are making a final push. Is it desperate?…yes. But desperation can lead to renewed hyper-aggression as much as to a sense of despair. Vigilance will be the key for allparties in Lebanon looking to avoid the worst: a re-commencing of civil war.
The Saudi propaganda machine is already in overdrive, with Saudi and pro-Saudi media suggesting that the apparent Houthi missile which was intercepted over Riyadh was somehow a Hezbollah attempt to make Saad Hariri’s ‘assassination fears’ become a reality. Such a claim amounts to the most childish attempt at a pseudo-false flag in history.
While Hariri was likely made a mafioso style offer he could not refuse by an ever more assertive Muhammad Bin Salman, one cannot discount the madness of famously unethical states in a moment of desperation.
Hariri has clearly been thrown under the bus, along with 11 Saudi princes and 30 ministers who are now under arrest for “corruption” charges, almost certainly on the orders of MBS. When it comes to further provocations in Lebanon, will Israel and al-Qaeda begin to do militarily/terroristically what Saudi has begun doing politically?
There is no absolute answer to such a question, but anything less than total vigilance, preparedness and military readiness from the Lebanese resistance would be worse than a crime, it would be a blunder.
Many in Lebanon will be happy to see Hariri go, but many will also be worried about how he may have opened the door to pro-Saudi sectarianism as a result of the timing and place of his abrupt withdrawal from office”.
Implicit in this interpretation is an attempt by the Saudi-Israel axis (which is very much a real thing in all but name) to distract Hezbollah from its anti-terrorist alliance with Syria by fomenting political chaos in Lebanon. That being said, all eyes will be on Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah who will deliver a speech later today. My feeling is that he will not take the bait that Saudi and Israel have apparently set and will remain calm, knowing that Hezbollah needn’t panic from a position of strength.
2. A Saudi surrender disguised as a provocation
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.