Caught in the middle: the Saudis and Lebanon
Roula Khalaf, FT deputy editor and Middle East expert, analyses the situation in Lebanon, looking at the future for embattled prime minister Saad al-Hariri and the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Studio filmed by Bianca Wakeman and Petros Gioumpasis.
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Saad Hariri has returned to Lebanon, almost three weeks after he resigned in obscure circumstances in Saudi Arabia. I'm joined by Roula Khalaf.
Roula, just remind our viewers, why did Saad Hariri resign from Riyadh?
That's a very good question, Ben. This has been a great mystery-- a great political mystery in Lebanon. About two weeks ago, Saad Hariri goes to Riyadh suddenly, without telling any of his aids that he was intending to resign. He appears on a Saudi channel saying, I resign. And he blasts Hezbollah, which is the Iran-backed Shiite group in Lebanon that has great power in Lebanon, and that essentially, it's both a participant in the government, but really, the most powerful force in the government.
And he's been in coalition with Hezbollah. Lebanon has been quiet for awhile. So suddenly, he announces that he's resigned. Saudi Arabia also issues very strident comments on Iran.
Little by little, we learn that what Saudi Arabia is doing is acting through Saad Hariri, in order to try to confront Hezbollah and to confront Iran in Lebanon. It's never been clear whether Saad Hariri was acting of his own free will or whether he was either detained or simply forced to act.
Hariri resigned on the day that a missile was fired at Riyadh airport from Yemen, which was blamed on Iran, possibly with Hezbollah's help. So was this a direct consequence of that Iranian offensive reaction against Saudi? And to what extent do they really think they can push back Iran in the Lebanese context?
Saad Hariri resigned to before that missile was launched and intercepted near Riyadh. However, one of the big problems that Saudi Arabia has with Iran today-- and they are confronting each other in various theatres in the Middle East-- the main issue is Yemen. Hezbollah, the Saudis believe has been helping the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis are rebels that are backed by Iran.
And they believe that Hezbollah has been training them. And that Hezbollah's role in Yemen has increased. Hezbollah, of course, denies this. But when Saad Hariri later gave an interview about a week ago, he made clear what the Saudi demands were. And the Saudi demands are that Hezbollah stops interfering in Yemen. That Hezbollah also stops interfering in Syria. But the focus, right now, is on Yemen, and that Lebanon, if it wants to have a national unity government and a government that remains stable, has to disassociate from any of the other conflicts in the region.
Now Hariri has returned to Lebanon, and he has suspended his resignation--
He's unresigned. Does that mean that the Saudis have backed off from their pressure on him? Have the Saudis been lent on by other Western powers to try and stabilise Lebanon, rather than make it more unstable?
I think there's no question that other powers-- including the French and principally, the French, but also, I think Britain and to a certain extent, the US, although on the state department and defence side, rather than the White House-- have leaned on Saudi Arabia because there are so many conflagrations right now, so many proxy wars in the Middle East. And everyone wants to protect Lebanon.
And it's not like any of these confrontations have actually led to stability. This standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been extremely destructive, wherever it has played out. It turns out that the impact or the end result is always the destruction of a country. Look at Yemen. Look at Syria. And I think everybody wants to protect Lebanon.
So I think we are in a phase of de-escalation. What Saudi Arabia will accept or wont accept, and whether Hariri is now acting fully on what the Saudis want, or whether he's gained a bit more independence because France is backing him, I think that remains to be seen in the next few weeks.