Why Lebanon thinks Saudi Arabia has imprisoned its PM - and what that means for the Middle East

The debacle has catapulted Lebanon to the forefront of regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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Bilal Allaw does not pretend to love his country’s politicians. He has been arrested 12 times during anti-government street protests in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

“I am against all of them, I protest against the government,” the 23-year-old says. Despite that, he holds little truck with what he, like most Lebanese, sees as Saudi Arabia’s kidnapping of his Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri.

“Hariri is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and is under a lot of pressure. I might protest against the government, but what Saudi has done is a great insult to us as Lebanese. Saudi Arabia carves differences between the Sunni and the Shia here, and creates a lot of problems,” he continues.

In a bizarre interview from Riyadh, broadcast on Saudi television channel Al-Arabiya on 4 November, the Lebanese Prime Minister announced his resignation. He cited fears of an assassination plot and directly criticised Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

Since then, al-Hariri has not been seen back on Lebanese soil. Top aides believe he is being held in the Gulf kingdom against his will and Lebanon's President, Michel Aoun, has said that after 12 days missing, al-Hariri can be considered "detained and imprisoned".

The debacle has catapulted Lebanon to the forefront of regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have played out across the Middle East with each of the superpowers backing opposite sides in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

As much as he divides them – with detractors like Bilal not uncommon – the Lebanese would quite like to see their leader back. His promotion to Prime Minister 11 months ago came as a new President, Michel Aoun, was elected. The country had gone two and a half years without one.

On Hamra Street in central Beirut, posters strung to lampposts every 50 metres bear Hariri’s face, accompanied by the words, “We are all with you”. Participants in the Beirut Marathon on Sunday even sprung across the start line under a sign reading, “We are all waiting for you”, with a picture of the absent Prime Minister in running gear.

 

Support for Lebanese PM #Hariri at start of @beirutmarathon - sign reads “we are all waiting for you”. #WhereisSaadHariri #Beirut #Lebanon

A post shared by لِيزِّي بُورتَير Lizzie Porter (@lcmporter) on

 

A tongue-in-cheek campaign has sprung up – "Free Saad Hariri" - monitoring the amount of time the PM has been AWOL. 

Hariri’s government was unable to tackle many of Lebanon’s deep-seated problems: a lack of continuous water and electricity supplies, diabolical internet speed, and the world’s third highest public debt-to-GDP ratio at 146 per cent, surpassed only by Japan and Greece.

But some sort of governance led to stability in the country of a kind not seen for a while. Military operations ousted Islamic State cells, who had been lurking on the border with Syria for three years. Lawmakers approved the first state budget since 2005. Tourists from the US and Europe even decided Beirut might really be the Paris of the Middle East, and returned to wander its galleries and drink in its atmospheric bars.

Hariri's supposed imprisonment in Saudi Arabia is seen in Lebanon as a sign that he resigned on orders of authorities in the Gulf Kingdom, where the businessman-cum-politician has enormous financial interests as well as citizenship.

Riyadh has denied placing Hariri under house arrest, but is believed to be angry at what it sees as his failure to challenge its foe Hezbollah.

The Tehran-backed political party and militia – in English, the “Party of God” – has significant power and influence in the government formed under Hariri. In parts of Lebanon, it is wildly popular.

Saudi Arabia seems to have forgotten – at least publicly – that Hariri is no fan of Hezbollah. Members are on trial for the murder of the man's own father in an enormous car bomb in central Beirut in 2005, although the movement denies involvement. Hariri has worked with the Shi’ite party through gritted teeth, as the least worst option to bring stability to Lebanon, and to save his own political career.

Britain has close diplomatic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, although it took a week after Hariri’s resignation for the Foreign Office to release a statement on the situation.

Saad Hariri has been a, “good and trusted partner for the UK”, it quoted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as saying.

British diplomatic sources in Beirut told the New Statesman that officials had, “engaged at very senior levels in Saudi Arabia, from the very beginning, urging for a full and speedy resolution to the current issue and stressing our commitment to Lebanese stability.”

Lebanon’s Sunni community is worried that Saudi Arabia will impose a blockade on the country, if it does not get its way, and Hezbollah continues to play a prominent role.

That would mirror the kingdom’s behaviour vis-à-vis Qatar, which it blockaded this summer, accusing the tiny Gulf nation of protecting terrorists. Already, Saudi has warned its citizens away from Lebanon, where they are renowned for propping up the bars at glitzy beach resorts.

“If Lebanon is treated in the same way [as Qatar], we don’t have the deep pockets to withstand such blockades. Iran cannot be a viable alternative to the Saudis”, a well-informed source in Lebanon’s financial industry told the New Statesman. “It will come gradually. We can survive not accommodating Gulf tourists, because ultimately they will come even with the warnings. But not taking on our surplus labour (on all levels) will hurt the core of our economy. Stopping from investing in the country will aggravate our economic stagnation.”

A poster of Saad al-Hariri with the words “We are all with you”. Credit: Lizzie Porter

More than a week after his resignation speech, in a live TV interview, Hariri said that he would be willing to reconsider his resignation, on condition that Hezbollah remained neutral in regional conflicts.

That fuelled further suspicion in Lebanon that Hariri was parroting Saudi demands.

“He was confused, and not speaking with his conviction as prime minister”, a Hezbollah supporter from the city of Baalbeck said, requesting anonymity.

Hezbollah’s neutrality in regional conflicts will happen when the apricots bloom – in Arabic, an expression suggesting the impossible.

The Shiite political party and militia has become a regional power in the past half-decade, bolstering the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and believed to be active in Yemen and Iraq.

What Saudi Arabia wants – or is able to – extract from Hezbollah in place of imposing an economic blockade on Lebanon remains unclear. But forcing al-Hariri’s resignation is unlikely to achieve its intended aims of confronting Tehran. Rather, it appears a sign of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bolshy foreign policy machinations, which have the support of President Trump, but few others internationally. As defence minister, MBS, as he is widely known, has presided over a widely-criticised war in Yemen, and has tried to steer Palestinians towards accepting the Trump administration’s version of a peace deal with Israel.

The move on Lebanon may totally backfire, and allow Iran to muscle in and play superman. Many Lebanese think they do, anyway. They see Hezbollah – Iran by proxy – as their protector against Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“All Iran’s positions are for the good of Lebanon”, said the source in Baalbeck, where Hezbollah has widespread backing. “It is always working to improve the country. After the 2006 war, it paved roads and rebuilt destroyed houses.” 

Others are less convinced about Iran’s ability or willingness to help Lebanon socially or financially. Saudi deposits at the central bank come in at around $860m, while 80 per cent of foreign direct investments in the country come from the Gulf. Sanctions make Iranian investment difficult to measure.

“All that Iran wants is for Shia in Lebanon to stay poor enough to constitute good soldiers. They have the opportunity to pitch in; they don’t”, said the Lebanese financial industry source. “The Iranians don’t need us. They have their own well-educated and dynamic labour force. We are barely carpet traders for the Iranians, and importers of pistachio nuts.”

Talk of a fresh war between Israel and Lebanon – battered by a month-long conflict in July 2006 and a 15-year civil war to 1990 – may amount to nothing. Any conflict could work against Saudi Arabia.

“If Tel Aviv moves against Hezbollah in Lebanon, most likely a growing number of Lebanese Sunnis and Christians would support the Shia group’s defense of Lebanese national security—and Saudi Arabia’s attempt to weaken Hezbollah’s legitimacy in Lebanon could ultimately backfire”, wrote Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero, in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC-based think tank.

For now, the Lebanese await their PM’s return. Among most there will be no pretence that he will resolve the country’s elitism, poor infrastructure or sectarianism. Bilal Allaw, like others, says he will continue to protest the problems that plague Lebanon.

“Look,” the young demonstrator wrote in a Facebook post. “When you come back safely, I’m going to go back to protesting against the government. So it’s 50:50.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.