Lebanon, a tiny country in the Middle East, is in the news again; perhaps more as an extension of Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war than anything else. Saad Hariri, the nation’s Prime Minister since November 3, 2016, announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia on November 4 this year, allegedly under pressure from the Saudi royal family. He has not returned to Lebanon since. It needs to be mentioned that Saad, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was born in Saudi Arabia and has strong Saudi connections.
But the question that arises is: why is Saudi Arabia so much interested in Lebanese politics so as to force (allegedly) Saad into resignation? Before coming to that it will be better to have a glimpse of Lebanon.
Lebanon is situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and is a part of Levant. It was (in addition to Syria) a French Mandate till 1943. Earlier it was a part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to the end of the First World War. From 1975 to 1990 the country was wracked by a civil war, which claimed more than one lakh lives. It initially started as a Christian-Muslim war but later the scene became quite confused. As far as the society is concerned, there are 27 per cent each Sunni and Shia Muslims and about 40 per cent Christians, the largest proportion for any country in the entire Middle East. According to the Constitution, the President has to be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.
Like in Syria, Yemen and other countries of the region, Saudi Arabia fears growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. This is aggravated by the fact that Hezbollah, the group alleged to be behind the assassination of Rafic Hariri, is based in Lebanon. It is basically a Shia militia and political outfit and has close links with Iran. During the Syrian civil war, it has helped the Syrian Ba’ath government, led by the Al Assad family, in its fight against the Islamic State and other rebel groups.
It is a general perception that Saudi Arabia, by forcing Saad to resign, is trying to destabilise Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a part of the government. By doing so it aims to contain the growing influence of Iran in the country and the region.
Saad’s resignation came at a time when a number of prominent Saudi Arabian princes, ministers and businessmen were arrested in Saudi Arabia following the creation of an anti-corruption committee led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. So much so that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men, was also arrested on charges of money laundering.
Mohammad bin Salman happens to be the Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia and is the figure behind the Saudi campaign in Yemen which has been going on since March 2015. In June this year he was made heir apparent to the throne.
France has made diplomatic push to solve Lebanon crisis and has invited Saad to travel to France to chart out the future course of action. Its Foreign Minister also met Saad on Thursday in Riyadh. It remains to be seen whether the balance (in Lebanon) shifts in favour of Iran or Saudi Arabia in the days to come.