Amid the turmoil in the Middle East, the abrupt resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri has left the Lebanese and political commentators perplexed. This development is perceived disturbing for two main reasons. First, the former Prime Minister was considered the keystone for internal stability of Lebanon’s diverse polity. Second, Saad Hariri’s resignation is associated with the brewing Saudi-Iran rivalry which could alter the regional dynamics.
Before assessing the repercussions of the resignation, it is important to understand the dynamics of the Lebanon’s domestic politics. The polity of the country is divided among three different beliefs: the Christians, Sunni, and Shiite Muslims. The Prime Minister was chosen from the Sunni sect to strike a balance as well as an unwavering political equation for the country. Therefore, there are a number of analysts who believe that this political vacuum can inflame the sectarian issue in the Middle East region.
Coming to the Saudi-Iran rift, it may appear far-fetched to some, however, if one considers the visits of Mr. Hariri to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prior to the resignation and his intriguing disappearance after the political upheaval, one cannot help but speculate about the Riyadh factor. Given the statements of Mr. Hariri condemning Tehran’s interference in Lebanon and role of Hezbollah, his antagonistic stance on Iran becomes apparent. On the other hand, Iran has denied allegations of Mr. Hariri regarding the intervention of Iran in Lebanon.
The significance of the seemingly domestic political change in Lebanon can be understood from the statements issued by the United Nations Organization, France, Germany and the USA, who have expressed concerns. In the UN statement, for example, the Secretary-General laid emphasis on “supporting the continuity of Lebanon’s state institutions, in adherence to the constitution, and safeguarding the country’s security and stability.” Moreover, speculations about Hariri’s disappearance and asylum have dissipated after clarification statements coming from Germany and France.
As far as public opinion is concerned, people have shown support for the return of Saad Hariri, as he is considered crucial for the stability of the country. In order to show solidarity with the Prime Minister, the annual sports event in Beirut was overshadowed by support for Hariri. Simply put, the former Prime Minister enjoys support from the Lebanese. However, the intelligence agency of the country has released statements which negate the claims of Hariri concerning security threat to his life.
In Iran, the resignation of Mr. Hariri is linked with Mr. Trump’s backing of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). It is important to note that Tehran has explicitly criticized the role of the USA in the Middle East particularly after Trump’s refusal to certify the Iran nuclear accord. Therefore, the cataclysm in Lebanon is not only seen as an outcome of the alleged Saudi backing of Hariri but it is also viewed as a direct consequence of the American hard-line policy on Iran.
On the other hand, the Saudi officials are dissociating Saad Hariri’s decision to resign from the arguable Saudi influence. As per the KSA official statement, the Lebanese Prime Minister’s resignation is an outcome of his independent will. Nevertheless, there are important political developments taking place in the domestic politics of KSA which are weakening the Riyadh’s official position.
The latest meeting of Saad Hariri with French President Macron is a factor which is likely to increase French influence in the Middle East dynamics. Mr. Macron’s efforts to mediate the crisis may seem anomalous at a first glance, but if one takes into account the influence of France in the 20th century over Lebanon, it helps to provide insights into the latest round of French involvement in the Middle East. More so, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Hariri’s visit to Elysee Palace as well as an announcement to return to Lebanon will influence the politics of Middle East.
The concern of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in addition to his conversation with French President Macron is another factor which accentuates the significance of Lebanon in the Middle East. Furthermore, the impact of Lebanese domestic politics on Syrian endgame is another facet which will unfold in the coming days.
Even though it is believed that Hariri’s return to Lebanon will put an end to the rampant speculations, however, the question that remains to be answered is whether Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon will bring stability to Lebanon? Additionally, it is too early to speculate if the resignation of Hariri will plunge Lebanon and the Middle East into further uncertainty.
While it is hard to estimate the implication of the resignation, however, one factor is clear that it could aggravate the political divide between the Sunni faction represented by Hariri and the Shiite dominated Hezbollah, which could have a spillover effect in the adjoining states. Hence, it is pertinent to contain the turmoil in Lebanon as well as an emphasis on placating the harsh rhetoric emanating from KSA and Iran is required.
Article originally published in Regional Rapport on November 20, 2017.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.