During my last visit to Lebanon in last September, I was told that the long troubled country had entered a period of fragile but promising stability. The old magic political formula to maintain a balance between the major communities had been finally achieved, thanks to the Christian, Syria-friendly President, General Michel Aoun, the Sunni Saudi dual citizen Saad Hariri and the veteran House Speaker and chairman of the Shia Amal Party, Nabi Berri, supported by Hezbollah.
The economic climate reflected the new confidence in the future through a widespread construction boom fuelled by overseas investments (although Gulf monarchies officially did not invest). Social life glittered in the affluent neighbourhoods and opulent mansions in and around Beirut, and the conspicuous consumption habits of the Lebanese were on full display in the electrifying night life. Not far from large portraits of black garbed Shia clerics, I came across droves of nattily dressed youths cruising in sleek sports cars. The attires of some of the famously attractive local girls were as skimpy and provocative as any in Capri, Mykonos or Ibiza, and the many bars and cafes, charging Paris-level rates, were crowded with hookah-puffing patrons boasting the latest smart phones and priciest designer outfits.
Dancing on a volcano is the national sport of the Lebanese, at least of the well-to-do, but the political volcano erupts every now and then, on land or in the sky. I had an echo of it when while in Sidon, the ancient Phoenician emporium, which is the fiefdom of the billionaire Hariri family, a series of deafening booms trailed the passage of Israeli fighter jets that make it a point to regularly violate Lebanese airspace just to show their impunity and arouse popular anger.
Then, earlier this November, the apparent calm was shattered. Premier Hariri, son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who must be given credit for planning and orchestrating the rebuilding of Beirut, went to Saudi Arabia, his second home after paying a visit to Iran, where he had held cordial talks with the national leadership in Tehran. However, in the meantime, a missile fired by the Houthi fighters from Yemen was shot down by Riyadh’s Patriot air-defence batteries over the international airport. The infuriated Saudi rulers turned on Hariri, whom they accused of appeasing the Iranians, instead of sticking to their agenda to fight the hated Shias of Hezbollah, alleged to be behind the Houthi rebellion.
Hariri, kept incommunicado in Riyadh for half a day, was compelled to make a statement on the Kingdom’s national television to vehemently condemn Iran and announce his resignation as Prime Minister because of unspecified threats to his life. He was apparently kept under “house arrest” on the order of the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, not known for caring about diplomatic proprieties. It seems that Hariri is also accused by his hosts of committing fraud through his family’s construction company, which is in serious trouble due to Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis. Rumours are that the Lebanese Prime Minister was threatened with financial ruin, if he did not comply with instructions to somehow snap the Iranian connection of his coalition. The fact that he holds a Saudi passport places him under the authority of the Crown, and Hariri, a cultured and suave Levantine, evinced his discomfort and fear on an interview on a Lebanese news channel in which he promised to return to his country soon.
Detaining a foreign head of government has always been a casus belli and most Lebanese were outraged. President Aoun refused to recognise the resignation from abroad and the entire Cabinet and Parliament demanded Hariri’s return. Aoun (a staunch ally of France, like most Maronites), who recently visited Paris on a state visit, asked the French President, then in the United Arab Emirates, to intervene. Emmanuel Macron accordingly flew to Riyadh and politely asked the Crown Prince to let Hariri go, but got no more than an evasive assurance that the Lebanese statesman was free. Macron’s role was delicate because he had just been hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, a generous client of France, regarded as a mentor of the ambitious Saudi heir, and who supports the latter’s shakeup of the Saudi regime. Also, some of France’s traditional friends in the royal tribe are under arrest and investigated for embezzlement, which might well relate to arms and other deals with the République and other western partners. Eventually, Hariri left for France and ended up back in Lebanon in time for Independence Day celebrations. He “suspended” his resignation on the insistence of President Aoun and asked for all political members of the ruling coalition to work together to prevent a major crisis, or in other words to placate the Saudis.
Prince Muhammad’s apparent recklessness, however, has found support in US President Donald Trump, who early saw him as a potential ally within the Saudi royal clan, long aligned with the Bush and Clinton families.
Prince Muhammad bin Salman acts and speaks as if he wished to be his country’s Peter the Great or Ataturk, a ruthless modernising reformer, who grabs all power and brooks no opposition. Yet, as can be expected of an inexperienced and pampered 30-something-year-old, his style of leadership has been tyrannical, but erratic. Until recently, he resided mostly on a private island in the Maldives from where he monitored the disastrous Yemen war, without bothering to consult the other princes in charge of military affairs. Although he called for austerity in public expenditures, he bought for US$500 million a super-yacht from a Russian-Israeli oligarch and launched a $500 billion scheme for a new city, which looks on paper like a clone of Dubai. His campaigns to bully Qatar and batter Yemen into submission have failed and he is even less likely to get Hezbollah to capitulate and Iran to defer to his wishes.
The Lebanese Prime Minister has been made to look like a puppet on a string by his Saudi sponsors and may secretly aspire for revenge against Riyadh. Apart from apparently failing to succeed in his attempted coup-by-proxy in Beirut, the Crown Prince seems, so far, to have botched the plan to make a part of the Saudi Aramco stock public, while the slew of high level arbitrary arrests at home has caused considerable disquiet in the business and political circles at home and outside. Likewise, many in the Wahhabi religious hierarchy are shocked at the imprisonment of fellow Ulema. Yet, at the same time, the new master of the kingdom is ratcheting up tensions with Iran and Qatar, worrying Jordan and Egypt, alienating Iraq and has made a virtual enemy of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose advisers openly excoriate the Saudi Prince’s “pro-Israel, pro-American” pledge of Islamic reform. To make new friends, the prince has wooed Russia and China with business deals and promises and has struck an agreement with President Vladimir Putin to bring world oil and gas prices up for mutual benefit. Yet, he is only being given the benefit of the doubt by those powers. Prince Muhammad’s apparent recklessness, however, has found support in US President Donald Trump, who early saw him as a potential ally within the Saudi royal clan, long aligned with the Bush and Clinton families. Trump does not forget insults and attacks. He has not forgiven the dismissive comments voiced against him by some of the offspring of King Abdul Aziz, nor is he unaware of the massive donations they made to the Clintons and their foundation. He hence relishes the arrests ordered by Muhammad, who organised the US President’s official visit to Riyadh a few months ago and pledged full financial support for Trump’s domestic economic agenda. The prospect of a single dynamic individual being in charge of the kingdom, in place of a medieval coven of secretive and inscrutable harem-born plutocrats could not but appeal to the American President, who readily admires autocratic rulers. He accordingly took the young royal under his wing, so to speak, and asked him to work with his son-his-law, Jared Kushner. The growing coordination between the Crown Prince’s policies and the Benjamin Netanyahu government’s designs in the region may reflect this concertation. That the State Department, the CIA and other agencies of the US government are not all happy with Muhammad’s unpredictable fiat decisions won’t influence Trump, who has made it his trademark to contradict and ignore his own administration and whose main goal is to pull the US out as far as possible from the combustible region, and letting the Saudis, the Israelis and other traditional US allies fend for themselves.
The question now is what will come from the Saudi multi-pronged attack against Iran and its allies, backed by Israel’s policy aimed at pushing the pro-Tehran factions out of the Lebanese government and still hoping to bring about a collapse of the Assad-led Syrian government, even though the current US administration is not committed to those two objectives. Iran, a past master at deception, subtle diplomacy and covert operations has plans of its own which do not bode well for the Saudi regime.
To be continued