Monday, 20th November 2017

Saudi Arabia: Riyadh’s power play pivots Beirut back into a political vacuum

Saad Hariri’s extended sojourn in Riyadh, widely believed to be at King Salman Bin Abelaziz’s pleasure – or rather willed by his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) – has stirred concern far beyond Beirut, and discontent within Lebanese ranks, with deep unease at the way the Saudi passport-holding prime minister is being used a bargaining chip. Hariri’s shock resignation in the Saudi capital on 4 November, claiming an imminent assassination threat faced him back home, is now widely viewed to have been forced. Sources close to Hariri reported the resignation letter was handed to the PM soon after he landed in Riyadh, following a royal summons. According to one credible narrative, he was subjected to the humiliation of having to read it out on TV within minutes of receiving it.

Suggestions that MBS wanted to dismiss Saad and replace him with his older, Geneva-based property magnate brother Bahaa Hariri are taken seriously in Beirut, as are reports that the Saudis wanted other members of the Hariri family to travel to Riyadh to give their collective blessing to this move. Their stout refusal to do so has been viewed as a serious setback for the attempted putsch.

There is palpable anxiety in senior Saudi circles at the accusations that Hariri, who has since decamped to paris, had been held hostage. Saudi chargé d’affaires in Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari denied Hariri was under house arrest, stating his return to Beirut “depends on him personally”, before adding cryptically that “he may decide not to return for security reasons”. Some observers feel that MBS may this time have overplayed his hand. It fell to France’s President Emmanuel Macron to offer a way out, with an invitation to Hariri to move to Paris, which was duly taken up on 18 November.

Riyadh’s hardline anti-Hizbollah state minister for Gulf affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan – who takes the lead on the Lebanese file – maintained on 13 November that Riyadh “has not backtracked” on its stance, when questioned about the more conciliatory (and nervous) words Hariri had adopted in a TV interview the previous evening. Hariri had toned down the more strident criticism of Hizbollah in his resignation statement, reinforcing the view that he was not the true author of that document.

Despite Sabhan’s assertion, there is other compelling evidence that Riyadh is looking to dial things down. The invitation to Maronite Archbishop Beshara Rai for talks in Riyadh on 14 November also indicated a more consensual approach. The figurehead of Lebanon’s Christian community, Rai maintains a broadly neutral stance on Iranian influence.

One reason for the Saudis to backtrack is the evident lack of international support for its moves. US secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear on 10 November that he still recognised Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister. French, British and Egyptian statements took the same stance. The drawing of a red line around Hariri may have convinced the Saudi leadership to step back from the brink. If so, it is further ammunition to those critical of the impetuous nature of decision-making under MBS. Hariri’s summons to Riyadh looked to many as a sign of Saudi pique, given that it happened a day after Hariri had held talks in Tehran with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

MBS may now be feeling the limits of his diplomatic influence, which are far more constrained than his domestic powers, where he seems to have relative impunity. “The Saudis are in combative mood but, in reality, there is little they can actually do,” said one seasoned Beirut-based political analyst. “The best hope is for a better accommodation for anti-Hizbollah views inside the cabinet.”

The bigger question now confronting the Saudi crown prince is what value there is in replacing Hariri with his brother Bahaa as PM, given that this is unlikely to materially boost Saudi ambitions to confront Iranian influence across the region. Bahaa was bypassed for the leadership role 12 years ago, amid questions about his temperament; he is reportedly irascible by nature, which does not fit the consensual style of Lebanese deal-making. While more robust in combating Iranian influence, Bahaa is seen to be more motivated by making money than politics – his Jordan-focused real estate portfolio being his main preoccupation. However, Bahaa would at least preserve the Hariri family name in Lebanese politics were Saad to be left in exile and that alone might appeal to the Saudis.

The Saudi leadership may still see mileage in maintaining the 47-year old Saad Hariri as an asset for now. The Beirut analyst said: “Hariri is being kept as a chip to be played in whatever mediation efforts the French are leading, in order to create a new and different power-sharing agreement that would bring him back to power on better terms than before.”

Beyond the Hariri family, some Saudi voices of influence remain in Beirut, notably Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the Mecca governor who has been a prominent figure in Lebanese cultural life and a patron of the arts. His son Bandar Bin Khaled is regarded as another Saudi player in Lebanon and, significantly, is understood to be part of MBS’ entourage.

The move against Hariri may have been prefigured in late September when the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Beirut officially submitted the credentials of a new ambassador to Lebanon; this ended a year without an official diplomatic presence for the kingdom. The new envoy, Walid Al-Yaaqoub, is a confidante of Al-Sabhan and his appointment was seen as a sign of a hardening of the Saudi stance towards Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Al-Sabhan’s divisive rhetoric – warning that Lebanon would be considered to have declared war on Saudi Arabia for “remaining under this party of evil and terrorism”, that is Hizbollah – will be a cause of anxiety for the estimated 220,000 Lebanese expatriates living in the kingdom. The risk of Saudi Arabia pulling investments from Lebanon is another worry, in light of the template set by the Qatar boycott. However, one Beirut banker discarded this suggestion, saying there has been no indication of capital flight as yet, and Banque du Liban (central bank) is maintaining its customary sang froid.

More intriguing are media reports that a Lebanese bank has been commissioned to find buyers for two of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s five-star Beirut hotels. This is the first tangible sign of a possible withdrawal of Saudi investments from Lebanon, but the motivations are unclear: the billionaire investor was one of the most prominent businesspeople caught up in MBS’ dragnet and it is not known exactly who has instigated the sales – and whether any potential sale would say more about the difficulties Lebanon finds itself in, or the approach the MBS team is going to take towards its billionaire house guests more generally.

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