Lebanese PM Al-Hariri’s resignation thrusts Beirut into the center of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry

Lebanon has been pushed to the center of regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, since the Saudi-allies Lebanese politician Sa’ad al-Hariri resigned his post as the country’s Prime Minister, blaming Iran and its Lebanese-proxy Hezbollah of forcibly asserting Tehran’s interests in Lebanon, as well as sowing strife across the Arab world. Al-Hariri’s surprise decision, which was made from Saudi Arabia after he left for the Kingdom on Friday for consultations with the leadership in Riyadh, had drawn criticism and was met with controversy in Beirut as it toppled a coalition government that included Hezbollah, thrusting Lebanon back into an open-ended political crisis. Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, in a meeting with Lebanon’s government Ministers and top security officials, questioned whether the decision by al-Hariri to resign his post was dictated to him by Saudi Arabia or was a voluntary decision, emphasizing that he would not accept the Prime Minister’s resignation until he discusses with him the decision face-to-face. That said, President Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, stressed that stability is “a red line for Lebanon.”

Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war against it because of aggression by the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. In an interview with the Al-Arabiya Television Network, Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan declared that the Lebanese government would “be treated as a government which has declared war” because of allowing a terrorist organization, which advances a policy of aggression toward the Saudi Kingdom to be part of it. He said, “His Excellency the leader Saad al-Hariri was informed about the affairs and the importance of the current situation in the region and the specific situation in Lebanon and what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faces in aggression at the hands of the Lebanese Party of the Devil (Hezbollah). He was updated on all details of the situation; he was also informed that these acts are considered a declaration of war against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from Lebanon and the Lebanese Party of the Devil (Hezbollah). So, the Lebanese government will be treated as a government which has declared war,” Al Sabhan declared.

Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy in every respect. It believes the organization is not a Lebanese resistance organization as it claims, rather a force to increase Iranian influence in the region and undermine the stability of Arab states. In March 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council – the body uniting six Arab Gulf states – decided to put Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations, and Saudi Arabia withdrew 4 billion dollars of financing to the Lebanese army and security services, apparently concerned that the weapons would be funneled to Hezbollah, although some of the French-made arms managed to make their way to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, a senior security official told TV7 that the latest developments were strongly perceived as a joint American-Saudi initiative to weaken Iran across the region, including in Lebanon. The official further pointed to a call that was made several days before Hariri’s resignation by Saudi Minister al-Sabhan for the toppling of Hezbollah, warning that anyone cooperating with the organization must be punished.