On November 4, 2017, Saad Hariri announced live on Al Arabiya satellite television that he had resigned as Lebanese prime minister.
Very few saw it coming, although it wasn’t entirely unexpected. After all, it’s not as if Hariri was overjoyed presiding over a government under the control of his archrival, Hezbollah, the Lebanese political-military party accused of killing his father, Rafik, in 2005. He wasn’t. But for him to quit now, in the absence of obvious triggers and in such a mysterious fashion, has left Lebanon’s political class—even his own entourage and popular base—scratching their heads.
That Saad told the world about his decision from Riyadh, not Beirut, was particularly revealing. It means that Saudi Arabia, which politically supported and bankrolled the Hariris throughout most of Lebanon’s post-civil war history, is readjusting its policy in Lebanon to more effectively weaken Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia’s standing in Beirut had been taking hit after hit since Rafik’s killing due to the dominance of Hezbollah and its foreign patrons, Iran and the Assad regime. What this readjustment might practically accomplish, however, is quite uncertain.
The timing of this potential reformulation of Saudi policy in Lebanon is curious. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has just rolled out an Iran strategy that’s expected to be more aggressive toward Tehran and its activities across the region. There’s also increasing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, which might lead these old antagonists to return to arms, a scenario the Saudis would cheer. Hariri’s departure does not necessarily make another Israel-Hezbollah conflict more likely, but it does make Lebanon as a whole more vulnerable. With Hariri out, the Lebanese government’s legitimacy is immediately in question, making it a theoretically easier target for Hezbollah’s foes, including Washington and Jerusalem, who consider the Shiite group a terrorist organization.
But none of this changes the following realities: having just won in Syria, and in Iraq for that matter (now that ISIS is on the run), Iran’s hand in Lebanon and the region has never been stronger. Of course, there are still serious limitations to Iran’s regional influence and Tehran remains vulnerable in multiple areas, but let’s be honest: its regional stock is on the rise.
Moreover, its desire to counter Tehran in the region notwithstanding, Washington’s new Iran policy remains an aspiration. The Trump administration has terminated U.S. support to Syria’s moderate rebels. Washington’s already limited attention on Syria, after whatever is left of ISIS is gone, is likely to disappear altogether. In Iraq, Trump has expressed no desire to keep a large U.S. military footprint in the country, and he doesn’t seem to have a political-economic strategy either, which effectively cedes the terrain to Iran. So for all its bark, Trump’s Iran strategy, for now, has no bite. There is a new, young, and hawkish leadership in Riyadh, but it is neither stupid nor suicidal.
So where does that leave Saudi Arabia and its newfound assertiveness in Lebanon? Given the absolute military superiority of Hezbollah over any of its domestic rivals—even the country’s army—a physical confrontation with the group is out of the question. There is a new, young, and hawkish leadership in Riyadh under the strict control of Crown Prince and soon-to-be-King Mohamed Bin Salman, but it is not suicidal. Moreover, Lebanon’s Sunnis have no interest in getting into a war with Hezbollah, which they know they will lose.
The fight, therefore, will be primarily political, both at home and in international diplomatic corridors. Lebanon’s parliamentary elections are around the corner (assuming they are not postponed). Hariri’s resignation might mean that he will run as leader of the opposition, an opposition that seems to be growing and could grow even more with financial assistance from the Saudis. Should he win the majority of seats in the next parliament, he might turn the tables on Hezbollah.
But if that’s his calculation, why did he choose to resign from Riyadh? He could have easily declared his entry into opposition politics in Beirut. It’s possible that Hariri was forced to resign by the Saudis, as part of Riyadh’s new anti-Iran approach. After all, Hariri did look particularly nervous while delivering his speech and almost puzzled by what he was reading—a document that contained a heavy dose of vitriol against Iran which only the Saudis are accustomed to using. Despite his old feud with Hezbollah, history has shown that Hariri is a political pragmatist. What he displayed on Saudi television was out of character.
Yet even if we assume that Hariri did make his move in partnership with, not out of fear from, the Saudis, it’s still not clear what happens next. For Hariri to form a new, broad-based opposition coalition that would include Christians who are loyal to pro-Hezbollah Lebanese President Michel Aoun, he must return to Beirut. The Saudis must have a clear plan, too, beyond throwing money at Hariri and some strategic patience, neither of which is guaranteed.
Hezbollah’s response to Hariri’s resignation, delivered last night by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was remarkably calm. Nasrallah seemed almost sympathetic to the plight of his rival, suspecting, like many others are, that Hariri was compelled to quit. Hezbollah has no interest in seeing Hariri go, because he provides legitimacy to the government it controls and represents, along with Nasrallah, the symbol of Lebanese Sunni-Shiite consensus.
But the Shiite group won’t cry for Hariri’s departure either. It will struggle mightily in finding a Hariri replacement that would be acceptable to the Sunnis (very few want to take the prime minister job for fear of confronting Washington and Riyadh), but whoever it helps pick, it will make sure not to fall into what it sees as a trap set up by the Saudis: the formation of what essentially would be a “war cabinet” that excludes the Sunnis. Hezbollah has bigger fish to fry in Syria and Iraq, and serious concerns about a likely war with Israel. The last thing it needs is a distracting domestic confrontation in Lebanon.
CORRECTION APPENDED (November 14, 2017)
An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel. The capital is Jerusalem.