The Twitter account of Lebanon’s prime minister, Sa'ad Hariri has been inactive since November 6, just after he announced his resignation in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Hariri justified his decision as a move to escape an assassination plot. So far, both Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and Ministry of the Interior have declared that they were not aware of any such attempt.
Rumours continue, however, that Hariri’s absence was not voluntary but instead imposed by the Saudi government, in particular Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Riyadh’s newly empowered strongman. Despite Hariri’s protests to the contrary, the theory that this was a Saudi intervention is certainly plausible.
As some onlookers pointed out, Hariri’s speech used expressions and terms that are typical of Saudi public rhetoric against Iran. He explicitly accused Iran of interfering in Lebanon’s domestic affairs and in disrupting Arab politics, and referred to Hezbollah, the militarised Lebanese Shia movement, as an Iranian proxy force – even though he became prime minister partly thanks to Hezbollah’s tactical support. Lebanon’s president, the Christian Maronite Michel Aoun, even called on Saudi authorities to immediately “release” Hariri.
Relevant to all this is that the Saudi government is under serious internal and external pressure. The day before Hariri resigned, the Shia-led Yemeni rebel government fired a long-range missile aimed at the International Airport of Riyadh. And two days later, Crown Prince Mohammad ordered the arrest of dozens of leading Saudi political and business personalities, in what he termed a campaign against corruption. In practice, this seems a strategy to give way to his uncontested leadership in the country.
This clampdown on Saudi Arabia’s opposition and civil society groups started a few months ago, and the wealthy businessmen now under arrest are just the tip of the iceberg. The rich princes’ fate is, it seems, not too grim: they reside in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in the capital. Opposition members, meanwhile, are held in prison.
Saudi Arabia’s newly empowered Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov
The Saudis’ moves are pushing the Middle East ever closer to the outbreak of a major international conflict at an already tumultuous time. While the so-called Islamic State has lost almost all its territory in Syria and Iraq, the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa by Iraqi and Syrian forces – backed by a pluralistic coalition of Russian, Iranian, Kurdish, and popular resistance groups – has shifted the regional balance of power.
From a Saudi viewpoint, the new geopolitical calculus strengthens Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his erstwhile allies Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, which for many years supported insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq, could soon be left behind.