Suffering huge regional losses, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is now taking his anger out on Lebanon
Saudi Arabia has gone nuts on Lebanon. The Gulf state took draconian measures last week that are tantamount to declaring war against the Levantine state.
The Saudis expelled the Lebanese ambassador from Riyadh, withdrew their Beirut envoy Walid Bukhari, declared a total boycott of Lebanese imports, and demanded several other Arab allies follow suit. All this, ostensibly, because Lebanon’s Minister of Information George Kordahi described the Saudi–Emirati aggression on Yemen as a “futile war.”
Other Gulf states swiftly jumped on the bandwagon. The UAE demanded its citizens leave Lebanon, and provided Lebanese diplomats 24 hours notice to exit the Emirates. Riyadh’s actions were accompanied by a propaganda war waged by Gulf-funded Lebanese and Arab conventional and social media, demanding either the resignation of Minister Kordahi or his dismissal by the Lebanese government.
Kordahi has refused to resign, and Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Najib Mikati looks unlikely to push him out, given the outpouring of both public and political support.
The matter appears to be escalating daily. The Lebanese MTV channel has published leaks stating that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is in the process of taking a decision to sever relations with Lebanon. And just today, the international courier service DHL said it had stopped shipping packages from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, which includes cash amounts Lebanese expats depend on to send dollars back home via Moneygram, Western Union and other money exchange houses.
What is the reason for this disproportionate Saudi response?
Does the opinion of a Lebanese minister about the war in Yemen deserve all this escalation, or were Kordahi’s words used by Riyadh as a pretext to implement a pre-determined policy objective – like using the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire as a pretext to triggering World War I? And where will this confrontation lead?
A pre-planned Saudi escalation
Saudi Arabia’s escalation against Lebanon is not in reaction to a Lebanese minister’s position on the war on Yemen.
Instead, it is the result of a prior decision taken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) to blow up the Lebanese arena.
On 2 October, the former Al-Arabiya (Saudi-funded media) correspondent, Ali Noun, revealed in an interview on the Lebanese channel Al-Jadeed – a full month before Kordahi’s Yemen statement – that “there is confirmed information on discussions going on in the corridors of the GCC to come up with one unified position that will not be positive for the interest of Lebanon.”
Noun revealed this hostile escalation a month ago. So why is Saudi Arabia, with Arab support, preparing to target and isolate Lebanon? What is the reason for this specific timing?
A diplomatic source tells The Cradle that “Saudi Arabia has long linked the Lebanese file to the Yemeni file.” He says that during the Saudi-Iranian negotiations held in Iraq at the invitation of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, Iran proposed discussing the Lebanese file, but the Saudis responded by saying that “Lebanon is not a priority for us.”
When the Saudis requested Iran’s intervention to pressure the Houthis for a settlement in Yemen, the Iranian side responded that it was only involved as a friend of the Yemeni resistance, Ansarallah, but that Tehran has no control over them.
This angered Riyadh, even though it was followed by almost a dozen further direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis, none of which led to a settlement. The talks had no significant effect on the battlefield in Yemen, and Saudi defeats in the game-changing Marib region continued unabated.
A source close to the Lebanese resistance Hezbollah also confirms to The Cradle that Saudi Arabia has made its decision to escalate in the Lebanese arena, even though Riyadh’s hostilities toward Beirut have long been in public view – certainly since the 2017 kidnapping of Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia, where he was physically abused and forced to resign on television.
While the source does not deny that one of the reasons for the 2017 Hariri fiasco was connected to the Saudi domestic situation, he says that there was an additional reason, one that the embattled prime minister did not make public – namely, that Hariri refused the Saudi demand to direct clashes against Hezbollah inside Lebanon and to disarm the resistance group.
There is also the personal factor of Mohammad bin Salman’s dislike of Hariri, which resulted in the withdrawal of Saudi material support from his political party, the Future Movement, and Hariri’s de facto exclusion from the prime ministership.
On condition of anonymity, the head of one of Lebanon’s security services told The Cradle that – regarding the bloody mid-October armed ambush on protesters in Beirut, reportedly organized by the right-wing Lebanese Forces (LF) party – the LF leader “Samir Geagea did what Saad Hariri refused to do.”
This effectively means the Saudis have jumped ship in Lebanon. They have abandoned their fragmenting Sunni-majority political movement for the far-right Christian arms of Geagea, who has already demonstrated his willingness to lure Hezbollah into armed confrontation.
Like Hariri, current Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati does not sit easy with Saudi Arabia, as he formed his cabinet with a green light from the US and France, not Saudi Arabia.
A top Lebanese media source tells The Cradle that in the past month, at least one major Saudi-funded media channel in Lebanon has been quietly commissioning investigative reports on ‘Mikati’s corruption.’
A Saudi blueprint to take back Lebanon
Saudi Arabia will continue its escalation in Lebanon until the parliamentary elections next year, according to the source close to Hezbollah. The elections are key to the Saudi plan – it is the mechanism on which Riyadh is betting to regain its political clout in Lebanon.
In the past month, Saudi Ambassador Bukhari has held several meetings with the Arab tribes of Lebanon, with LF representatives sometimes present, and in which he directed them to support and elect LF candidates in the elections.
Some essential background now: The Arab tribes are a nomadic people who were, quite inexplicably, granted Lebanese citizenship in 1994 by Saad’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. With strong historic allegiance to the Saudis and unique political cohesion, the tribes have altered Lebanon’s demographics, and now number half a million of the country’s five million population.
According to The Cradle’s own August 2021 investigation of the tribes, “the high birthrate of the tribes has altered the demographic sectarian balance in the Bekaa villages, so much so that they have become the deciding factor in any election.”
The tribes re-emerged in the national spotlight in July, when they shot dead a Hezbollah member at a wedding reception, and then opened targeted fire on his funeral procession in Khalde, killing a further three civilians.
Clearly, the Saudis are now colluding in the Lebanese political arena with groups and individuals who specifically demonstrate preparedness to initiate street battles with the Lebanese resistance.
Geagea is now the Saudi man in Lebanon, and since the Tayouneh massacre, the Lebanese are starting to see influential figures like the pro-west, pro-Saudi former minister and Internal Security Forces Chief Ashraf Rifi come under his wing.
Saudi Arabia has essentially dialed down its backing for the mainstream Sunni camp, the Future Movement political party led by Hariri, and plans to enter the upcoming elections placing its bets on the Arab tribes and right-wing Christian LF.
The goal, according to the source, is to isolate the Shia community, both Arab and local, to target Hezbollah. As a reminder, the source invokes the scenes that unfolded following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. Lebanese elections were held a few months after the killing, when emotions were heightened and extreme political polarization was taking shape, divisions that sought to isolate Syria and its Hezbollah ally.
The source does not rule out the instigation of local security incidents in Lebanon in order to exacerbate tensions and urge sectarian mobilization ahead of the March 2022 elections.
Sources close to Saudi diplomats also caution that Riyadh’s general escalatory measures will continue in the weeks ahead, revealing the likelihood that a number of Lebanese nationals will be deported from Arab Gulf states.
These sources say that in order not to incite public opinion against the Gulf countries, expulsions will not target all Lebanese. Instead, a new list of Lebanese citizens to be deported from Arab countries will be drawn up.
Hezbollah has now warned that the Saudi issue with Lebanon is not related to Kordahi’s Yemen comments, but is rather a result of Riyadh’s years of defeats exploding onto the Lebanese arena.
The Lebanese resistance group has stood firmly with Kordahi and worked to prevent his resignation. During a mediation attempt with the embattled information minister, the pro-west Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai asked whether he would be prepared to resign for Lebanon’s sake, to which Kordahi replied: “Can you obtain Gulf guarantees that the resignation will lead to a breakthrough?”
Both Hezbollah and its Christian-majority Marada movement ally headed by Suleiman Franjieh – who nominated Kordahi as minister in Mikati’s new government – all know that the Saudi campaign against Lebanon will not stop with a resignation, but will continue to humiliate and subjugate the country.
Their views are only reinforced by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, who declared in a recent interview that “the problem in Lebanon is greater than a minister’s statement, but lies in the control of Iran’s agents.”
In his Al-Arabiya channel appearance, Bin Farhan added: “Hezbollah’s dominance of the political system in Lebanon worries us and makes dealing with Lebanon useless for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and Lebanon’s leaders must find a way out to restore Lebanon to its position in the Arab world.”
Hezbollah’s response came quickly. Its Executive Council Leader Hashem Safieddine responded: “Who believes that a statement generates this kind of organized and orchestrated political attack? Who shed light on this statement months after it was made? Behind him [Kordahi] was a media machine that rushed, as usual, to exaggerate and exploit his very ordinary statement. We have often heard such expressions, from the Americans, the Europeans and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres as well, and some Arab countries, who have declared more than that [on Saudi aggression in Yemen], and no one has objected.”
The Hezbollah official also said that Saudi Crown Prince MbS is anxious and is facing a major predicament after the fall of the strategically critical, oil-rich province of Marib in Yemen – where the Saudis have their two main military bases. He said MbS fears that all the visions he created for Saudi Arabia will dissipate with by losing the war on Yemen, so he is striking out at Lebanon and causing the Lebanese that same pain.
In response to Saudi FM Bin Farhan’s claim that Hezbollah dominates Lebanon, Safieddine said: “Hezbollah does not utilize the methods of hegemony, domination, threat, intimidation and pressure; that is the [Saudi] method. If Hezbollah was in control of Lebanon, one would see a different Lebanon. We do not allow violations of our dignity … and we are not the decision-makers in Lebanon; we are partners in governance. Do not trick people by saying we control Lebanon.”