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Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director

November 2017
Lebanon’s political stability collides with geopolitical realities

During Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s 4 November televised speech from Riyadh announcing his resignation, he cited undue Iranian influence in the country as the primary driver behind his decision. The move left his partners in the government and even his own political base dumbfounded. Despite initial attempts by some pundits to spin the prime minister’s decision as expected and justified, it seems even Hariri did not know that his tenure would be ending so abruptly. His TV interview on 12 November did little to quell suspicions that Hariri did not know in advance of plans to have him step down. As we write those lines, Hariri is likely on his way to forced exile from political life in France.
Attempts to explain Hariri’s resignation need to be understood not only within the context of the geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran but must also incorporate the extraordinary shift in the balance of power in Riyadh. More concretely, the events that unfolded on 4 November show how domestic interests in Lebanon have clashed with the Saudi Arabia’s regional geopolitical calculus and may even have served to consolidate power in the kingdom. Furthermore, the events that have befallen Lebanon are to one degree or another affected by multiple factors that have now converged to place both the country and its prime minister in their respective predicaments.
To best understand how we got here, one must look back to 2016, when Hariri decided to mend fences with what was known as the March 8 coalition in order to resume his political career. With his political and economic fortunes at stake, Hariri, who has been out of office since January 2011, felt compelled to return to Lebanon and assume the premiership. This culminated in the election of Michel Aoun as president and Hariri being named prime minister. Since then, Hariri’s government has made headway on several issues (notwithstanding many concerns over the policies that his government had enacted). For instance, the government managed to pass its first budget since 2005, an electoral law which was being endlessly debated in parliamentary committees since 2010, a salary adjustment law that bounced back and forth between the government and parliament, and oil and gas decrees that stalled the launch of the first petroleum licensing round since 2013, among others. He was clearly planning to enter parliamentary elections in 2018 with a list of accomplishments on which to hang his hat. All this indicates that Hariri was looking to the future and not the past.
However, his political aspirations clashed with Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical stance on Iran. While Hariri came to terms with the fact that he needed to sit at the same table with Hezbollah to become prime minister, Saudi Arabia remains wary of Iran’s regional reach. The Saudis have managed to put down protests in Bahrain—participants of which are accused of being supporters of Iran—but failed to make any headway in Syria. Now, it is Yemen that is on the minds of leaders in Riyadh. Having launched a war more than two years ago, not only have the Saudis failed to score strategic victories, they are now sensing the effects of a security threat—partly of their own making—along their southern border. The Saudis are accusing Hezbollah and Iran of being behind the missile launch targeting Riyadh on 4 November. It should not be lost on observers that Hariri, in his TV appearance on 12 November, echoed Saudi’s concern over Yemen.
Failing to curb Iran’s influence in Syria and Yemen, Riyadh may very well have decided to pressure Hezbollah in Lebanon by toppling the government. After all, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are both competing for influence in the region, do not confront each other directly and by bringing down Hariri’s government, Mohammed bin Salman could claim a quick victory after having reached a stalemate in Qatar and a dead end in Yemen. Additionally, Saudi’s emerging action is not independent of the United States, where a new sanctions bill targeting Hezbollah is pending and expected to pass in the U.S. Congress, while the Trump White House policy toward Iran, as inchoate as it is, remains adversarial. Within this context, Hariri’s government no longer serves Saudi’s broader interests.
The geopolitical rivalry provides a useful context but does not fully capture why Hariri was forced to resign now—one year after he formed his government. The perceived threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah to Saudi Arabia is not a recent phenomena. The fact that Hariri was summoned to resign on the eve of the most aggressive purge in the history of Saudi Arabia suggests that it has something to do with the crown prince’s quest for the throne. Since his father assumed the kingship, Mohammed bin Salman has been carefully planning his ascendance to the throne by first removing the two powerful crown princes before him: Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef. He recently moved to stem the influence of religious institutions, which are considered co-founders of the Saudi state. While the road to the throne was mired with difficulties, Mohammed bin Salman chose to rewrite the rules of governing the kingdom to his advantage and he will be the first grandson of the Saudi kingdom’s founder to assume power. Under the pretext of an anti-corruption campaign, the crown prince launched what would otherwise amount to a coup and removed many of his rivals—including at least seventy princes—in addition to seizing the wealth of many rich businessmen.
It is here that domestic power aligns with geopolitical rivalry. To consolidate power domestically, the crown prince may also have found it necessary to provoke a crisis with Lebanon and blame Hezbollah. This could serve to raise both national fervor as well as sectarian sentiments, which are useful for internal consumption at a time when the crown prince is consolidating his power. In short, a foreign policy crisis will serve to divert attention away from local politics. In this regard, Lebanon is a pawn in a larger geopolitical game.
The question remains, why has Hariri been detained? One would be remiss to not take into consideration unfinished business deals and the whereabouts of loans that involve the bankrupt Saudi Oger rather than only politics per se. The new Saudi leadership did not bother to save Saudi Oger, once a favorite of the royal court, employing at one point 45,000 employees. Instead, they seemed adamant about determining how those loans were used. This suggests, at the least, that Hariri fell out of favor with the royal court.  
In retrospect, Hariri was in a bind. To remain politically relevant in Lebanon and salvage his fortune, he had to cross the bridge and deal with Hezbollah to assume the prime ministership. However, it is precisely this move that made him less relevant to his Saudi patron.
How these actions will affect Lebanon is largely contingent on how strongly the Saudis are planning to pursue Hezbollah in Lebanon. Politically, Lebanon looks to be entering into a crisis. For one, the agreement between the president’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, and Hariri’s Future Movement could collapse, ending with it the prospect of a national unity government. This effectively means that there will be no government for the foreseeable future or the Future Movement will be cut out of a government that is formed. In both cases, Lebanon will be in limbo again, after just escaping it.
Now that Saad is out, it remains to be seen whether the Saudis will insist on naming the new premier. Riyadh’s efforts appear to be concentrated on replacing Saad as head of the Future Movement. The response to the Saudi’s reported proposal of replacing Saad with his brother, Baha, indicates a growing rift between the Future Movement and Saudi Arabia. For one, the Future Movement reiterated its support for the prime minister and refused to discuss a replacement. Furthermore, the Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad al-Machnouk’s response to the reported proposition articulated well the disagreement with the Saudis when he clearly stated that such a proposal “indicates ignorance of Lebanon’s political system … plus we are not a flock sheep or a piece of land whose ownership can be transferred from one person to another”.
It is not clear to what extent the Future Movement will be able to withstand Saudi pressure and avoid division within the movement while also addressing mounting concerns in the Sunni community. But such political shifts will not be confined to the Sunni community. Parties are closely watching how events unfold and we should expect several realignments, possibly within the mould of the March 8 and March 14 camps. This would most likely lead to polarization and paralysis in the country, an outcome that could empower Sunni extremists at the expense of moderates if pressure is sustained.
In addition, the forced resignation of Hariri from Riyadh highlights serious structural challenges facing Lebanon. Not only are we reminded that Lebanon’s sovereignty is not recognized by regional powers but the violation of our country’s sovereignty takes several forms. Holding arms outside the control of the state is one form. Forcing the resignation of a prime minister is another, crudely reminding us how our political parties’ foremost allegiance is not to citizens, but to the foreign powers they depend on. The same way foreign powers are able to bring them to power, they can also replace them. This is not new. Foreign powers have long interfered in Lebanon’s political system by financing electoral campaigns and influencing the selection of ministers. Foreign powers also interfere by funding the provision of services indirectly through their chosen local representatives or directly through organizations they helped found in return for loyalty—effectively contributing to transforming citizens into clients. This is by no means the plight of the Sunni community exclusively. A similar dynamic exists in the case of the Shiite and Christian communities as well.
Party heads are not victims of this asymmetrical relationship. Rather, they are willing actors and participants seeking funding from abroad to maintain and expand power domestically. Unfortunately, there are many actors that are willing to respond to foreign powers’ offers. Many compete with existing actors to position themselves as more loyal. Some swiftly switch sides and exacerbate tensions to serve the interest of foreign countries. Not only political leaders and parties succumb or seek foreign influence, religious figures and members of Lebanon’s media community should be counted among the opportunists willing to do their bidding.  
As such, our “leaders” have made us mere pawns of other countries’ geopolitical interests. Indeed, local leaders who seek dependence on foreign powers hold the whole country hostage to foreign interests. Occasionally, they may even have to legitimize the use of Lebanese territory, on which scores can be settled and wars fought.
While Hariri’s political career remains uncertain, Lebanon’s sovereignty is certainly being violated. As long as the country’s unwritten political rules remain dependent on foreign powers, our call for political parties to act first and foremost in the interests of citizens remains wishful thinking. What is needed is the emergence of an independent political leadership aiming to build a civil state, whose legitimacy stems from the people who are able to vote, not out of fear or in return for materialistic goods, but on issue-based political platforms. Hence, there is a need to hold parliamentary elections that are fair and transparent but also there is a need for new political and social groups that are able to think outside the framework of March 8 and March 14. Such groups should be determined to propose a new way forward and build a constituency around themselves and their ideals. The 2018 election needs to be the first step in building, legitimizing, and growing such a movement. 

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