Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Vicious tug-of-war

Where will the feud between Riyadh and Tehran lead, asks Dina Ezzat  

 

 photo: AFP
photo: AFP

Leaving Cairo after a brief stopover on Tuesday, Saad Al-Hariri – the Lebanese prime minister whose surprise resignation was made in a televised address from Riyadh — was probably bracing himself for a continuation of the difficult political game that began two weeks ago in the Saudi capital.

Amid tight security measures, Al-Hariri landed in Beirut on Tuesday before midnight, as Al-Ahram Weekly was going to print, after a short, unexptected visit to Cyprus to meet with President Nicos Anastasiades.

Al-Hariri, who left Saudi Arabia for France on Saturday following a two-week stay which the president of Lebanon, among others, has suggested may not have been entirely voluntary, faces two pressing questions the moment he arrives home. Will he bow to the wishes of his political partner, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and withdraw his resignation? And if he does, how will he manage relations with Hizbullah, the group on which, during his televised resignation statement, he laid the blame for Lebanon’s current instability.

“It is not an easy time for the Sunnis of Lebanon who are prey to growing political weakness, and it is particularly a tough time for Al-Hariri,” says a Beirut-based European diplomat. Nor is it “at all clear” whether any other Sunni political figure in Lebanon would want to take the job on from Al-Hariri knowing that Saudi Arabia remains determined “to pick a fight with Iran”.

According to a Cairo-based European diplomat, “it is safe to say, at least for now, that an explosion had been avoided as a result of French mediation.”

With strong regional support Paris has managed “to secure the return of Al-Hariri to Lebanon and ensure Israel does not become involved in any military adventures against Hizbullah,” says the diplomat. “But it would be a mistake to assume the storm is over. The Saudis will not agree for things to return to where they were two weeks ago.”

Across the region diplomats agree it would be a mistake to underestimate the determination of Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince to end the political and military influence Iran openly enjoys in several Arab countries. Mohamed bin Salman, they argue, is convinced he must undermine Iran’s influence in the Arab world before any transfer of power in Riyadh and that, they add, could happen within months.

Diplomatic sources close to the extraordinary session of Arab foreign ministers which convened on Sunday at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League say Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told his counterparts while exiting the meeting hall that Riyadh would settle for nothing less than the full containment of Hizbullah in Lebanon.

After three years of Riyadh trying to engineer an end to Tehran’s influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon it is hard to find a single diplomat in the region who would agree, in private at least, that the Saudis are anywhere nearer their goal.

At Sunday’s Arab League meeting informed sources say the Saudi delegation had been pushing for a resolution that made clear demands on Lebanon’s government and president to work towards the prompt disarming of Hizbullah.

Only concerted “preventive diplomacy”, to which Cairo was party, headed off Riyadh’s demands which could have severely fractured the already fragile Lebanese state. The diplomatic offensive also managed to convince the Saudis that it would be too destabilising to threaten economic sanctions against Lebanon when Hizbullah has not only not been disarmed but is part of the Lebanese government.

What the Saudis finally agreed to was that the Arab League, together with some Arab and European capitals, should extract guarantees from Hizbullah that it will refrain from supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen who are openly backed by Iran.

On Monday Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit arrived in Beirut for talks with Lebanese officials. According to a Lebanese source, Abul-Gheit told the Lebanese president the crisis is not yet over and he must act to ensure Hizbullah refrains from any provocative acts towards Saudi Arabia, especially on the Yemeni front.

While Abul-Gheit was in Lebanon on Monday Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech in which he appeared to shrug off the results of the Arab League meeting. While Nasrallah did not opt for any serious escalation he used the occasion to reference the increasingly overt rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In the last two weeks Israeli officials have spoken openly of direct talks with their Saudi counterparts, references Riyadh has not denied.

An informed regional diplomat says Riyadh may be unhappy about Israel’s reluctance to embark on an all-out diplomatic, political and military offensive against Hizbullah but Saudi officials are continuing to work with Israel on securing greater American, and maybe even European, pressure on Iran.

“Obviously Tehran will not sit idly by and watch. But what we are hoping for is that things do not go beyond the political and diplomatic tug-of-war,” says an Egyptian diplomat.

He argues that among the “more disturbing scenarios” is the possibility Lebanon’s political partners — Sunni, Shia and Christian — fail to agree on a strategy to contain Saudi anger, “in which case we could see a major political crisis”.

Regional and international forces are working to ensure this does not happen. According to official statements from Cairo and Paris, preventing such a crisis was the subject of a recent phone call between the French and Egyptian presidents.

Another scenario worrying many in Cairo and Beirut is that any escalation in Lebanon could be accompanied by missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemen.

Riyadh, which was targeted by a single missile fired from Yemen more than two weeks ago, insists it reserves the right to react to the strike.

No diplomats are suggesting Saudi Arabia will directly confront either Hizbullah in Lebanon or Iran. Many, however, say Riyadh is continuing to lobby Israel to “take action”.

Such appeals, for now at least, are likely to fall on deaf ears. Since the devastating war of 2006 Israel and Hizbullah have managed to avoid stepping on each other’s toes and in recent weeks Israel secured a clear Russian promise that whatever future role Hizbullah has in Syria it will be well away from the Golan Heights.

In an attempt to defuse the escalating tensions a string of meetings have been scheduled in and out of the region. In Paris Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, in Washington King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled to meet with US Vice President Michael Pence and in Cairo a meeting has been set between Pence and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

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