• Campbell Easton

Saudi, Lebanon tension close to tipping point


Saad Hariri has resigned as prime minister of Lebanon during a visit to Saudi Arabia - Photo via WSJ

The government of Saudi Arabia has released a statement that recent acts of violence committed against it by Hezbollah amount to a declaration of war by Lebanon.

"The Lebanese must choose between peace or aligning with Hezbollah," Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan told Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya. In the same interview he claimed that Hezbollah was involved in every terrorist act committed against Saudi Arabia, and stated that Lebanon's government would be "dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia".

The announcement comes just days after the shocking resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri resigned on Saturday morning, via a television broadcast made while he was in Saudi Arabia. In his resignation he accused neighbouring Iran of intervening in the region, stating "Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries."

The resignation elicited a great deal of shock within Lebanon, with Hezbollah claiming that Hariri had been placed under house arrest in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and been forced by the government to resign. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah released a statement calling the resignation a “Saudi-imposed decision”, and claiming that Hezbollah was opposed to the resignation.

The resignation was further condemned by the Iranian government. "Hariri's resignation was coordinated with US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman," Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Sheikholeslam said to Fars News Agency. "The resignation was aimed at creating tension in Lebanon and the region."

Until Saturday, Hariri had been the most important piece of a coalition government that had managed to balance power not just within Lebanon, but the region as a whole. For much of his career Hariri had received support from the Saudi government, but demonstrated that he was a pragmatist willing to work with the opposition, supporting Hezbollah's Michel Aoun for the Lebanese presidency in 2016.

Hariri with the Hezbollah candidate for president, Michel Aoun - Photo AFP

In a similar announcement, Saudi Arabia has condemned a missile attack by Houthi rebels as an act of war on the part of Iran. On Saturday, Yemen's Houthi forces launched a Burqan 2H missile at Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport. The missile was intercepted with no loss of human life, but Human Rights Watch has called the attack a "likely war crime". Riyadh has been at war in Yemen since 2015, when they intervened against the allegedly Iranian-backed insurrection.

All of this comes as Saudi Arabia is shaken internally by a series of high-profile arrests. Over the weekend the state led what it claimed was an “anti-corruption crackdown” in which 11 princes and dozens of powerful businessmen and ministers were arrested. The arrests took place under an anti-corruption commission established by King Salman on Saturday, headed up by his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leading many to speculate that King Salman is consolidating his power ahead of a planned succession.

These tensions all come as the Middle East enters a new period in its existence. As the conflict between the US and Islamic State nears its conclusion, and Russia solidifies its support of the Assad regime in Syria, conflict between Saudi Arabia and its neighbours in the Middle East could become a flashpoint for further instability in the near future.


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