BEIRUT: Lebanon has managed over the past 48 hours to contain the repercussions of the latest tirade emanating from Saudi Arabia, after the country’s Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan launched an unprecedented attack on Hezbollah, calling on “the Lebanese government to recognize the seriousness of the situation;” with the more underlying concern being if that will be sustained.
Sabhan’s tirade, which many consider and view as a direct threat against Hezbollah when taking into account its escalatory tone and heavily charged content, has raised concerns among Lebanon’s political establishment, even though the Saudi diplomat assured that his country is not seeking to topple the Lebanese government.
President Michel Aoun, speaking at the event held to celebrate his first year in office, sought to diffuse tensions between the Iranian backed Hezbollah group and Saudi Arabia. He dedicated part of his speech to address the ongoing conflict, saying, “our unity is of the upmost importance, and they [Saudi Arabia] must be cognizant of that, all Arabs are brothers and must take into consideration the existence of Iran.”
Prior to Aoun giving his speech, Prime Minister Saad Hariri travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the Crown Prince and Sabhan, with tensions rising in anticipation of what would emerge from those two meetings. Diplomatic sources are of the belief that the rhetoric coming out of Saudi Arabia suggests a shift in policy and a more hardline stance against Hezbollah and Iran, as Saudi Arabia recognizes its role in the region and has a clear set agenda that it seeks to follow through; putting the rest of the region on notice.
Hariri’s meeting with Sabhan and the subsequent tweets that ensued from both men seem to have alleviated some of the concerns, at least ostensibly, with the more underlying questions regarding the whole situation yet to be resolved.
According to diplomatic sources, these questions are spread along two lines, whether Hariri was able to convince his Saudi counterparts of the importance in maintaining Lebanon’s stability and the current political landscape, or if in fact both parties were unable to come to an understanding in light of Sabhan’s disparaging comments.
What is worrying in terms of the second scenario, is that if indeed Saudi Arabia decides to escalate matters with both Hezbollah and Iran, then both parties would be unlikely to stand idle and absorb these threats and will surely respond in kind, even if the reactions coming out of both camps seem tamed thus far.
Saudi Arabia’s flamboyant rhetoric has undoubtedly led to an elevated level of tension and unease within Lebanon’s political landscape, and deservedly so. First off, President Aoun’s response was not representative of the whole political establishment, but merely of one political camp lacking the necessary trust and ability to restore a sense of normality.Second, if Saudi Arabia does follow through on its threats, then that will severely hurt Lebanon economically and financially, instilling a level of distrust among its citizenry while leading the country down a slippery slope.
This, coupled with anticipated U.S sanctions against Hezbollah, will further exasperate Lebanon’s dire political and economic situation. Some have argued that these developments might lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri, although that seems unlikely given the upcoming parliamentary elections and what’s at stake. With the new electoral law now implemented, it would be foolish for Hariri to step down as of this moment.
As noted before, Saudi’s renewed hostility toward Hezbollah comes in the midst of Congress expediting a fresh batch of sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s financial network. It is also important to note that this rhetoric came in the wake of U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and the immediate beneficiary of this escalation seems to be the U.S.
Many fear the repercussions that Lebanon faces in the wake of these escalations, both from Saudi Arabia and the U.S, with political insiders of the belief that the country’s ability to mitigate them is spread between two extreme scenarios.
The first is to confront Hezbollah from within the government and keep the party in check, an unlikely scenario given the impracticality of the situation.
The second is to try and reach a compromise with Hezbollah, something that is equally unlikely given the volatility of the situation and the U.S’ and Saudi attacks on the party and its backer Iran.
The third and final scenario hinges on the Lebanese government and its institutions’ ability to hold its own in light of what has transpired. However, one must beg the question of why Saudi Arabia is so keen on interfering in Lebanon, when the situation in Yemen is much more dire.
A version of this article appeared in Annahar's Arabic print issue on November 1, 2017. The article was adapted into English by Georgi Azar.
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