Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A region-wide war?

The purge in Saudi Arabia along with the abrupt resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister raises alarm bells as to what is approaching on the regional horizon of events, writes Hussein Haridy

Two seemingly unrelated and very serious developments shook the Middle East Saturday, 4 November 2017. The two taken together are sure signs that the last seven long years of instability and warfare across the region are not about to wither away. On the contrary, it seems that the battle lines are becoming clearer by the day and the only thing missing is a casus belli.

Saudi Arabia was the scene of the two developments. The first was the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri from his post. The news took all Middle Eastern watchers by complete surprise. And what was most surprising was the fact that he announced his resignation from a foreign capital, Riyadh, and not in his home country Lebanon. According to various news reports, there had been no prior consultations with the various political partners in the government coalition that he was heading, let alone giving notice to the head of state of Lebanon.

The second development was probably more startling. The Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, issued royal decrees on the same day, in a drive to “fight corruption”, dismissing and arresting royals, prominent business tycoons and leaders, like Prince Walid bin Talal. Among the ousted royals are the commander of the National Guard, the praetorian guard in Arabia. The Saturday royal decrees also included one related to the setting up of a high-level committee to fight terrorism. Its mandate is wide-ranging and could prove an institutionalised process of eliminating all opposition to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Saturday, 4 November, could prove to be the Saudi version of the “Night of the Long Knives” in Germany back in the 1930s. With the arrest of these prominent Saudi personalities, the message from the royal palace is unmistakable. The rise, influence and authority of the crown prince shall be defended at all costs.

As things stand today, it is inconceivable that there would be any kind of opposition to the succession in Saudi Arabia. When the time comes for the crown prince to become the king, it would be smooth sailing within the House of Saud, as well as in the army and the government. In other words, what is unfolding before our eyes is a fierce struggle for power in Saudi Arabia, and everything is being done to ensure a smooth succession.

This smooth succession has its Arab and regional preconditions and ramifications as well. And here comes the sudden resignation of Al-Hariri, who became prime minister in a deal that assured a certain balance of power within Lebanon between Sunni and non-Sunni forces, including the Maronites and Hizbullah, the pro-Iranian guerrilla force. This balance of power has been a reflection of a regional balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It had been an open secret that Saad’s father, Rafik Al-Hariri, rose to power because of connections with the Saudi royal family. He aligned Lebanon’s Arab and regional policies with that of Saudi Arabia. After the assassination of his father in February 2005, Saudi Arabia with the United States and France pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon.

The government of Saad Al-Hariri came to power in a deal that brought to an end a severe political crisis in Lebanon that lasted more than two years that had left the country without a head of state. The deal, whereby Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hizbullah, became president, and Saad headed the government in a shaky arrangement that owed its political life to an uncertain balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran. A balance of power that, in turn, drew its force from a benevolent attitude in the West, particularly the United States, that has been leading an international coalition to defeat and degrade the so-called Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria. Although Iran has not been a member since this coalition came into being in September 2014, it was providing assistance in the fight against the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq. The United States could not afford a hasty confrontation with Iran while the battles for the liberation of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria were still raging. After the liberation of both cities, the Iranian role in defeating this terrorist organisation lost its lustre from an American point of view. The stage is set, then, for the American reckoning with Tehran and its proxies, including Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. In both countries, the United States has a very close ally in this near life-and-death fight against Iran’s role in the Middle East, the Gulf, and the Arab Peninsula.

The chain of events unfolding in Saudi Arabia and beyond in the larger Middle East goes back to Friday, 13 October 2017, the day US President Donald Trump unveiled the outlines of his administration’s strategic policy towards Iran and its proxies, more particularly the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) signed with Iran in July 2015.

The new American strategy is nothing short of a muscled containment of Tehran and its proxies throughout the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and Israel as allies and partners in this respect. It is an open secret that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is positioning itself to strike at Hizbullah in Lebanon at a time of its choosing, as well as crafting a dangerous strategy for denying Iran access to the Mediterranean, or the so-called Iranian belt extending from Tehran and passing through Baghdad and Damascus. After the remarks of the American president 13 October, the Saudi monarch congratulated him in a phone call. In this phone conversation, the latter praised the former’s “visionary new Iran strategy”, pledging full Saudi support.

This “full support” has entailed a purge within the ruling family in Saudi Arabia and the abrupt resignation of the pro-Saudi prime minister of Lebanon, announced on Saudi territory, away from his home country. The Saudi promise for participating in the dream project worth $500 billion in the Red Sea that the Saudi crown prince announced two weeks earlier was too tempting to decline. Of course, the reasons given were all related to Iran and Hizbullah. He accused Iran of turning this pro-Iranian party to a state within a state, glossing over the fact that he had accepted to become the prime minister of a government coalition that included ministers hailing from Hizbullah. He addressed the Iranians, threatening them with defeat everywhere in the Middle East and the Gulf, in an echo of the interviews and speeches of the present crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

The ramifications of the internal purges in Saudi Arabia coupled with the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister bring grave foreboding for the Middle East. Egypt should keep itself out of the gathering storm. It should make clear that the Middle East will not withstand another decade, or more, of destruction, terrorism and instability. No one will come out a winner save Israel. This should not come to pass. It is not in the national interests of Egypt.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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