Lebanon: Saad Hariri’s Impossible Choice

Saad al-Hariri

by Aurélie Daher

One could say: “What a difference!” Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is back in Riyadh this week, for the first time since he announced from the Saudi capital his canceled-two-weeks-later “resignation” last November. So far, things look all lovey-dovey again between the kingdom and its Lebanese Sunni protégé. Could that mean that Riyadh has learned its lesson from what many saw as a major strategic mistake by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)? Does Hariri himself feel more confident facing his regional godfather? Things are not so easy to decipher, although much is at stake.

A quick reminder. On November 3 last year, Saad Hariri was “urgently invited” to Riyadh where he was expected to meet King Salman bin Abdel Aziz for a “work meeting.” The very next day, he announced his resignation from his job as prime minister—and vehemently assailed both Iran and Hezbollah, whom he accused of “planning to assassinate him.” Both the news of the resignation and the aggressive tone sounded bizarre to the large majority of the political class and people in Lebanon, particularly because Hariri had spent a lot of time before his resignation reassuring everyone that, despite rumors, he intended to remain in office. The invective he hurled at his opponents appeared to flagrantly violate the “Presidential Compromise” struck a year before in October 2016 among all political parties that provided for Hariri’s return to the prime ministership, as well as the installation of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, as president.

These developments and the many leaks that followed his surprise resignation strongly suggested that the Saudis had forced Hariri into the decision. Their aim was to provoke an insurgency within the Sunni political class, encourage the Sunnis to escalate their rhetoric against Hezbollah, and dismantle a government that would have been replaced by a new one that excluded the Shiite party, consequences be damned.

The whole plan backfired. The Lebanese Sunnis did not rebel against their Shiite compatriots but instead against the Saudi patron. Lebanese from all sects were infuriated by what they felt to be both a violation of their national sovereignty and an infantilizing attitude towards the main leader of one of Lebanon’s main confessional and political communities.

Saudi Arabia chose at first to escalate. Things reached a point where everyone feared the whole Middle East was on the brink of a devastating regional war or at least an extension of the Iraqi or Syrian level of violence into Lebanon. Eventually, however, Saudi Arabia, under French and U.S. pressure, was persuaded to step back, release its Lebanese detainee, and accept the status quo ante in Lebanon to the extent that it could be restored.

This week, Riyadh tried to send some positive messages to the Lebanese political elite and people. First, in a telling move, the kingdom sent an envoy to Beirut to deliver an official “invitation” to Hariri to come to Saudi Arabia. Second, the choice of envoy who is now in charge of the Lebanese file, Nizar Alaoula, is an affable and diplomatic man, a major contrast to his incendiary predecessor, Thamer Sabhan, who played a highly negative role in the November crisis and was accused by too many Lebanese and Western officials of acting like a pyromaniac of Sunni-Shiite relations in Lebanon and in the region.

Third, although Riyadh was still boycotting Aoun last fall, Alaoula insisted on meeting with the president before anyone else. He didn’t stay long, but long enough to state publicly that “Saudi Arabia respects Lebanon’s sovereignty and supports its stability.” And if he did not push the reconciliation process as far as getting together with Hezbollah officials, he did pay a visit to Nabih Berri, head of parliament and the chief of Hezbollah’s main ally, AMAL, the second Shiite party. Aloula even praised Berri as a “national figure who embodies hope and optimism.” Finally, the Saudi emissary chose not to meet Ashraf Rifi, a staunch Sunni client of Riyadh, albeit one who has harshly criticized Hariri.

Has Saudi Arabia Learned its Lesson?

One question still hangs over the present moment, however. Is Hariri’s departure to Riyadh a “visit” or a summons? Hariri headed to Riyadh the very next day after Aloula arrived in Beirut. The Saudi envoy was supposed to stay the week, but Hariri was obviously in a hurry to meet his mentors again—or is it the other way around? In fact, he left 24 hours after Alaoula landed in Beirut, forcing the new envoy to shorten his stay and accompany the prime minister to Riyadh.

Not all of the details of his stay in Riyadh are yet available. In November, a squad of Royal Guards met Hariri at the airport and immediately confiscated his phone and those of his bodyguards. This time, a number of high-ranking Saudi diplomats greeted the landing of Hariri’s plane, and he met with King Salman the very next day. But MbS granted him an audience only two days after that, suggesting that the “reconciliation” is still incomplete. All the same, the media blackout supposedly reflected the fact that he had been busy there, engaging in series of confidential meetings with numerous officials with whom he “discussed Lebanon and the region.”

But the stakes for Saudi Arabia are far higher than just “making up” with its Lebanese protégé after what happened in November—or “forgiving” him, depending on how the story is told. Legislative elections are coming in Lebanon in May. And things do not look good so far for the kingdom’s allies there.

To start with, Hariri has stubbornly ignored Saudi Arabia’s Christian friends—mainly the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea and the Kataeb of Samy Gemayel, who used to be the Christian main allies of Hariri’s Future Current. He doesn’t want their candidates running on his slate at all. After Hariri returned to Lebanon from his Saudi detention in November, it appeared that both Geagea and Gemayel, who had visited the kingdom in September, had secretly lobbied Riyadh to help arrange Hariri’s dismissal and his replacement by a more “pugnacious” prime minister who could stand up to Hezbollah.

Plus, Hariri is striking alliances in more than one constituency with their main Christian foe, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is pro-Hezbollah. Unless Riyadh intervenes on their behalf and persuades Hariri to change his mind, the traditional share of seats in parliament for the pro-Saudi Christians will seriously decline this spring.

At the same time, Hariri himself is a much-diminished figure. MbS did state in a Washington Post interview a few days ago that, thanks to what happened in November, Hariri “now is in a better position” in Lebanon, relative to Hezbollah. But he could not be more wrong.

The Sunni community in Lebanon did defend Hariri and demanded his return in November mainly because his apparent captivity represented a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty. But the man himself has lost a large part of the support he enjoyed in the late 2000s. His weakness of character, his confused politics, and his tendency to run away from the country at each major crisis have long tired his followers, both those who wish he were not that lenient with Hezbollah and those who wish he would forgo his sporadic but dangerous outbursts against the Shiite party.

Moreover, the war in Syria and the support that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have provided to some jihadist groups there have also put off many people in the Middle East, even among Sunnis, even in Lebanon. Finally, Hariri’s financial problems in the last few years—problems exacerbated by Riyadh itself—as well as his failure to pay the wages of his employees and political clients have done the rest.

Hariri is aware of the situation, to the point that he will not run as a candidate in his own hometown of Saïda, and, according to some serious rumors, not even in Beirut where he has regularly won elections since the assassination of his father Rafiq in 2005. There is some talk about his targeting a whole new district, Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, whose constituents are unhappy about being surrounded by Shiite and Druze areas. Even in the Bekaa, Sunnis have already made it clear that they would prefer to vote in their majority for Aoun’s Sunni candidates.

Hariri’s Impossible Choice

Saudi Arabia is obviously eager to put some order in what appears to it as a worrying situation. Hariri sent an indirect, though crystal clear, message to Riyadh on February 14, in the speech he gave to commemorate his father’s assassination. “We are a party that refuses to strike any electoral alliance with Hezbollah,” he declared. The next day, he met Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to whom he publicly said, “Lebanon remains committed to dissociation from regional conflicts,” one of the kingdom’s main demands. Obviously, the message was heard and the implicit request for help duly noted.

In the same speech, Hariri also stressed that “there will be no money for the elections this year”—perhaps an admission that the usual rumors about his party buying the votes of some of its supporters at each legislative session is not unfounded. But more importantly, it is a way to blame the Saudis and tell them: “If I lose, it’s your fault.” The Saudis did reduce their financial help to Hariri some time ago, presumably in retaliation for not respecting their wishes. They have also taken over a number of his main companies, starting with Saudi Oger.

So, if Hariri does not want to lose some serious ground legislatively speaking, he needs Saudi help. At the same time, however, gaining Saudi favor will come at a cost. He has to reject any alliance or compromise with Hezbollah, meaning that he would turn his back on the very popular national unity formula that, through the Compromise of 2016, solved a lot of problems in Lebanon that had persisted for years (electing a president, organizing legislative elections, and starting the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in Lebanese national waters). He will also have to return to less moderate rhetoric that will inevitably inflame sectarian animosity, risking the escalation of potentially violent tensions between Sunnis and Shia in the country.

But trying to retain the strength of his party and that of the March 14 coalition in parliament poses another major problem. If Hariri were to openly and vehemently antagonize Hezbollah and reject any compromise with it, he will have to abandon what he cares about most, what he really lives for politically: his position as prime minister. Hezbollah remains the ultimate arbiter as far as the nomination of the prime minister (and president) in Lebanon is concerned. If he opens fire on Hezbollah yet again, he will simply be orchestrating his own political suicide. And the candidates ready to take his place are plenty, starting with former prime minister Najib Mikati, who is already said to be the next major winner of the elections in Tripoli, the Sunni capital of the North, or even Nuhad al-Mashnuk, one of the big names of Hariri’s party who would rather not have bad relations with Hezbollah.

Hariri, as well as Saudi Arabia, has to understand that in Lebanon, the regional Goliath cannot win against the national David. A Sunni maximalist policy in Lebanon is doomed to fail. The Lebanese Sunni constituency made it clear in November that it is not inclined to engage in a new civil war with their fellow Shiite compatriots for Hariri or Saudi Arabia’s sake—or anyone else’s, for that matter. And Hezbollah publicly showed then that it was ready to stick by its commitment to its Sunni partner. While Riyadh humiliated Hariri by forcing him to announce his resignation, Hezbollah maneuvered at home to secure his return and reinstatement. Bahia Hariri, Saad’s aunt and a respected former MP and minister of the Future Current, even said: “If it were not for Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s Secretary General], Saad wouldn’t have been released.”

The question now is: What will it be for Hariri? Giving priority to his alliance with the Saudis who cannot give him what he wants most unless they accept that they can’t dictate all of Lebanon’s internal politics? Or loosening his ties with the kingdom and remaining prime minister after May elections with Hezbollah’s acquiescence?

Photo: Saad Hariri (Wikimedia Commons).

Aurélie Daher

Aurélie Daher is co-head of the Master’s Program in Peace Studies at Paris-Dauphine University, Paris, France. She held a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Oxford from 2016-2017 and from 2010-2011, and a postdoctoral research associate position at Princeton University from 2012-2013. Her work focuses on Hezbollah, Shiism, Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. Her doctoral dissertation was published in French in 2014 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation et pouvoir, PUF editions, Paris) and in English in 2019 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation and Power, Hurst/Oxford University Press, London/New York).


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