By Satharathilaka Banda Atugoda, A former Foreign Service officer who served in the Middle East
Perhaps, this essay could follow what I wrote, in Sunday Times of September 17th, titled “Fall-out from the West Asian conflicts for Lebanon”
My attempt there was, tracing Lebanon’s history, and how the strategic position of this small Nation, had its politics interwoven with problems of bigger and powerful neighbours,who created instability.The present imbroglio,with the alleged house-detention of Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri, in Riyadh, on November 4th, his travel to Paris subsequently, to meet Emmanuel Macron,President of France,his controversy-wrapped resignation,on November 4th, Lebanon President, General Michel Aoun’s refusal to accept the resignation and the request for his return, to Lebanon, his agreement to return on 22nd November on the National Day,of Lebanon, his hard-hitting statement on Iran and the Hezbollah,his coalition partners in Government and the concerns expressed by world leaders of interference by neighbours in Lebanon’s internal affairs, seemed confusing and difficult to unravel.However, the latest on 22nd November is that he has returned.
[caption id="attachment_103603" align="alignright" width="400"]Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri greets supporters upon arriving at his home in Beirut on November 22, 2017. (AFP)[/caption]The Story could begin from 2016 when General Michel Aoun, was elected as president after an impasse, of two years, not having a proper government, after President Suleiman’s term expired in May 2014.Both Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri belong to political families in Lebanon, the former being a General in the Army during difficult times of war in the 1990s with Israel,and a former President, who also lived in exile in France and Saudi Arabia, and the latter the son of Michel Hariri, a former Prime Minister who was himself assassinated, in a car bomb allegedly, by Syria.The President of Lebanon constitutionally should be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni-Muslim, and the Speaker a Shiite Muslim. Therefore General Aoun is a maronite Christian and Saad Hariri a Sunni-Muslim. In fact the constitution itself,is a mirror-image of the country’s divisive politics.
The ruling elite are wealthy persons who are educated but they lack the force, strength and the ability to unite the Nation, resulting in the neighbours interfering in the Nation’s internal politics.Saad Hariri’s family owns one of the largest construction companies, ‘Saudi Oger’, based in Saudi Arabia. His family holds dual nationality, both Saudi and Lebanese.His children attend school in Saudi Arabia, and wife Lara looks after them in that country. Elder son, Hussam studies in Britain, and the wife and elder son joined Hariri in France on November 20th.This background makes it easier to comprehend Lebanese elite politics. Born on April 18th 1970, Hariri, has the memories of the Father,especially, of how he was assassinated, in 2005; it was also a result of divisive politics. He therefore, probably feels insecure himself. Although, a coalition partner, Hezbollah was resented by Hariri, partly, due to their involvement in the attack on Father.
In 1990 Michel Aoun the present President was the President in 2005 too and he fled the Baabda Palace, when Syrians attacked him and lived in exile. All leaders in Lebanon have a woeful tale to relate, and when the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman summoned Hariri to the Saudi Royal Palace on November 3rd, and had a meeting, and when he did not return to Lebanon, it was widely believed that he was forcibly detained. The background is that he travelled to Riyadh, on october 30th, and returned to Beirut to brief his Government on economic support that the Saudi’s contemplate to offer on Lebanon.He was planning to re- visit Saudi to meet the King Salman on the 6th November when the Prince summoned him once again on 3rd November.
Saudi Crown Prince, is believed to be a hard administrator, who had detained a number royal family members on charges of corruption saying that no one is above the law. He also has the Al-houthi problem from Yemen in his hands and the accusation is that Iran is helping the Yemeni rebels, while Saudi government helps the Yemeni regime.The latest is that Saudis have found a missile launched by the rebels on Ryadh.Crown Prince is also being seen as the person behind some accident of another member of the Royalty. The worried person that he was he did not want an escalation of the internal situation in Saudi by Iran or by the Hezbollah supported by Iran, which is in fact a part of the Government, of Lebanon. He chose, therefore, to force Hariri to stem the flow of terror from Lebanon.However, the protocol procedures adopted when Hariri arrived, in Riyadh gave rise to suspicions. On the 3rd evening when Hariri arrived he did not have the scheduled meeting with Prince Salman, and he stayed the night at his residence in Riyadh.He was called to meet the Prince at 8. a.m. on Saturday, which is unusual time for such high level meetings in Saudi. Hariri travelled anyway without security, except his personal security. What transpired after was not known to the Lebanese as he was out of public view till Saturday afternoon. The treatment of a Prime Minister by the Palace was viewed in Lebanon and other analysts as ominous.
When he appeared at around 2 p.m. it was to make a statement critical of the Iranians and the Hezbollah, of his own country.He too stated that he was resigning from the Premiership because of Iranian threats on his life, and the Teheran’s ‘export of devastation and chaos to his own country’. Analysts say that the language used was totally undiplomatic, and not of his style. The conclusion therefore, was that the Saudi Palace prepared the statement for him to attack the Shiite-Iran which is a regional power in the Middle-East, vying for supremacy over Saudi-Arabia.After the statement, Hariri did not travel to to his Riyadh Residence until Monday, but was spending the week-end at at the Villa in the Ritz-Carlton compound where alleged Saudi personages under corruption-scrutiny charges are being kept. These rather surreptitious happenings made President Aoun nervous to say the least, and demanded Saudis to send Hariri back to Lebanon, even if he desires to resign. On Monday Hariri, met King Salman, and travelled to Abu-Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Who instigated this visit is not clear but Zayed is a close associate of Prince Mohammed.It should be remembered here that UAE was also a party to isolate Qatar, as a State,allegedly supporting terrorism in the Gulf, along with Saudi Arabia, a few months ago. The same allies were now attempting to use Lebanon as a cat’s paw to push back, Iran and her allies, in the name of terror-friendly States.In the same vein this was also seen as a ploy to isolate other extreme groups like ISIS, and rebels who are fighting President Assad of Syria.Saudis plan to instal regimes friendly to Wahabism, Sunnism, and usurp the supremacy of the region from any other power player, Iran, Turkey or Syria.It is said that in this exercise, they want Hariri’s older brother, Bahaa, to be installed as the Premier of Lebanon. There are confusing reports whether Bahaa is in Saudi Arabia or he is willing to accept this offer or not. Walid Jumblaat, the Druze Leader in Lebanon, of course, had indicated his unwillingness to have anything to do with the present turn of events.The people in Lebanon do not want a return to anarchy of pre-2015 period.
Perhaps, Saad Hariri, is also cognizant of the Nation’s stability, but he has become a victim of circumstances, threatening his political survival apart from his life.In the meantime, two events outside this episode took place; one was the opening of the New Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi and the meetings, the French President Emmanuel Macron had with Gulf leaders, and the second, his entry into the role as a ‘soft-power mediator’ of this issue.The diplomatic impasse created with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s, request that Saudi Arabia should send back Hariri, home and the reaction of the Saudi’s by recalling their Ambassador to Berlin may also have been a reason for the French to soft-peddle the issue. Their desire was spelt by statements made, that the crisis should be settled peacefully, to keep the Saudi’s at bay, and also help the colonial ally Lebanon to resolve the problem at least temporarily.These overtures may have led to Hariri’s visit to Paris and meet the French leadership who have cultural links with Lebanon from her pre-independence days.His exile in France before too makes it easy to request support, and reports though unconfirmed, have led to softening of stance of Saudi. Hariri’s visit thereafter to U A E to meet Prince Zayed is a pointer to this. There were reports that he will travel to Egypt, to meet President Abdel Fattah el Sisi,perhaps, to confirm that the crisis should be settled peacefully. This visit too is linked to an Arab League, meeting held earlier in the month, in Cairo, to discuss the conflict of the Arabs with Iran and the leadership role of the Middle-East by Arabs.
Iran has been keeping a diplomatic distance and relative silence on the unfolding of events.Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, and Velayati, the Advisor are more concerned with the outcome of these political events on the nuclear treaty signed by them with the United States.Iranian leadership has commented on the missile launch, as a ‘fire and forget missile’.Donald Trump has made statements that he wants the Treaty renegotiated, and he had shown sympathies with the Saudis, on terrorism emanating from some countries, giving an impression that Trump is an ally of Saudi Arabia, and allies.Iran is cautious therefore, in her moves in the political chessboard. Syria is engaged in her own rebel uprising against President Assad, and ISIS. In fact the allies of Syrian regime Russia, Iran, and Turkey hope to meet at Summit level, and the respective Foreign Ministers,Sergei Lavrov,Javed Zarif, and Mevlut Cavusoglu, have already arranged the logistics, to resolve issues.Their leaders ,Racep Tayyip Erdogan,President of Turkey,Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia are to meet in the Black Sea Resort, in Sorchi on 22nd November.The timing of Hariri saga by Saudis, seem to have a link with these talks too, in that they do not savour a strong Iran supported by Russia.
A Lebanon in Peace will be helpful to Syria as well, but President Bashar Al Assad, has enough in his plate and expects the Saudis to be neutral until the rebellion in Syria is resolved, by the three Leaders. In the meantime, Lebanese Maronite Christian Patriarch, Beshara Boutros Al-Rahi has met Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, and expressed support for Hariri’s resignation, which seems strange, but reflects the divisive politics of Lebanon, while the Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has called for ‘patience and calm’, as he does not want a collapse of the Lebanese Government and losing their power base.
Iranians and Saudis support rival factions in Yemen; the Iranians support al-Houthis who are supporting Shia Muslims; they are being the arm of former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Saudis back the present leader Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The conflict continues from 2011, and Saudis have imposed a blockade of Yemen. It has created a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions which the UN and world bodies want to tackle and they do not want another conflict in Lebanon in their hands. It is relevant to mention that Israel Premier Benjamin Netanyahu who has a stake in this issue has declared that, this is a wake -up call to international community to take action against Iran, which is provocative. The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres,has cautioned that ‘ new conflict in the region would have devastating consequences’
We in Sri Lanka should perhaps, study the unravelling of events as we have a large Sri Lankan population working in the Gulf Region and the Middle-East. It is for the immediate future. In the long run we have to carve our strategies, and steer clear of regional power politics of our bigger neighbours for our own stability, even when leasing/selling of our National Assets to them.
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