Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of detaining prime minister Saad Hariri and asking the movement’s arch enemy Israel to launch strikes against it.
Hariri resigned as PM of Lebanon on Saturday, saying he feared assassination but many Lebanese felt Saudi Arabian officials forced him out to wreck his compromise government with Hezbollah.
The Shiite political party and militant group is backed by Iran and opposed to Saudi Arabia, with both countries locked in a power struggle in Lebanon through their allies.
‘The head of the Lebanese government is detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon until now,’ Nasrallah said in a televised address, his first since Hariri resigned.
Nasrallah has accused Saudi Arabia of drafting Hariri’s resignation letter and forcing him to read it on Saudi TV.
‘It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,’ he said.
Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon but added: ‘I warn them against any miscalculation or any step to exploit the situation.’
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries against using Lebanon for ‘proxy conflicts’.
Tillerson also called the premier, Saad Hariri, a ‘strong partner’ of the United States.
‘The United States cautions against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,’ said Tillerson.
The French Foreign Minister has dismissed rumours that the Lebanese Prime Minister is being detained against his will in Saudi Arabia.
Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a radio interview this morning that Saad Hariri is ‘free to move around’.
‘He went to Abu Dhabi [on Wednesday]the day before the President Macron’s visit [to Saudi]so we think he’s free to move around,’ Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.
Lebanese officials feared their Prime Minister was being detained against his will in Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Thursday demanded his return.
Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Iranian-backed movement Hezbollah, suggested that Hariri, who holds Saudi nationality, was being held ‘hostage’ in Riyadh.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has yet to formally accept his resignation and insisted Hariri should return to Lebanon but did not elaborate on the premier’s current situation in Riyadh.
Aoun, who is politically allied with Hezbollah, also ‘voiced his concern over what is being said’ about Hariri’s current status in Saudi Arabia and demanded a ‘clarification’.
French President Macron made a surprise overnight trip to Saudi Arabia on Thursday-Friday during a Middle East tour that saw him attend the inauguration of the new Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
‘The Lebanese situation is the most worrying subject of the moment,’ Le Drian added in his interview on Friday morning.
Lebanon ‘was moving towards a new solution with a new constitution, elections to come. The departure of Prime Minister Hariri creates new uncertainties,’ Le Drian added.
Hariri’s announcement raised fears that Lebanon – split into rival camps led by Hariri and Hezbollah – could once again descend into violence.
The Sunni leader had been sharing power with the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah in hard-won national unity government, but the arrangement had come under increasing fire from Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a power struggle for influence in Lebanon and France has close historical ties to the Middle Eastern country, which was once its colony.
Macron, on his debut visit to the Middle East, made the surprise announcement at a news conference in Dubai that he would meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
‘It was decided to go on this visit to Riyadh to see the Crown Prince, first, it is in order to have a first meeting with him, but also to discuss regional questions, in particular Yemen and Lebanon, he said.
‘I will also emphasize the importance of Lebanese stability and integrity.’
Officials in Lebanon are now reportedly planning to work with foreign states to secure the politician’s return to the country.
‘Lebanon is heading towards asking foreign and Arab states to put pressure on Saudi to release Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri,’ said the official, who declined to be identified because the government had yet to declare the initiative.
The official said Hariri was still Lebanon’s prime minister.
‘Keeping Hariri with restricted freedom in Riyadh is an attack on Lebanese sovereignty. Our dignity is his dignity. We will work with (foreign) states to return him to Beirut.’
Saudi Arabia and Hariri aides have denied reports that he is under house arrest, but he has put out no statements himself denying his movements are being restricted.
Saudi Arabia says the Iran-backed group Hezbollah had ‘hijacked’ the political system in Lebanon.
In his resignation speech, Hariri attacked Iran and Hezbollah for sowing strife in Arab states and said he feared assassination.
Hariri made the surprise announcement in a pre-recorded message on a Saudi-owned TV station.
Saad Hariri declared his surprise resignation on Saturday from Riyadh which fuelled beliefs he was coerced into standing down against his will.
His resignation has thrust Lebanon back onto the front line of the Middle East’s most biting rivalry, pitting a mostly Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE against Shiite Iran and its allies.
Last week, Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan predicted on Lebanon’s MTV station that ‘astonishing developments’ were coming for Lebanon.
After Hariri’s resignation, rumours spread in Lebanon that he was under house arrest in Saudi Arabia – especially after news broke over the weekend of arrests in the kingdom of dozens of Saudi princes, ministers and influential businessmen in a sweep purportedly over corruption.
Al-Akhbar, a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia’s policies, ran a full-page photo of Hariri on its front page with the words: ‘The hostage.’
Speculation continued to swirl despite the official Saudi Press Agency carrying photos Monday showing Hariri meeting with Saudi King Salman.
Hariri tweeted that he was ‘honored to visit’ the king in his office – and some of his supporters tweeted back, telling him to take a selfie raising his left hand as a signal that he’s OK.
Hariri, a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen, has been facing financial difficulties recently as his business in Saudi Arabia suffers.
Earlier this year he closed his family’s Oger construction firm that had made billions of dollars since his late father founded it in the 1970s.
Some experts on Lebanese politics are convinced Riyadh was behind the resignation.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said Hariri made ‘many concessions’ to his political rivals in order to become prime minister and would not have given up the position had it not been for Saudi pressure.
Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, warned just last month that Saudi Arabia was seeking ways to compensate for the loss of Syria as a place where it could defy and bleed Iran.
‘A renewed desire to reverse their regional fortunes could lead them to try regaining a foothold in Lebanon,’ he wrote.
Saudi Arabia has denied any meddling.
The resignation throws Lebanon into potential turmoil, forcing the small nation to become a new front in the regional fight for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And this at a time when Iran and its allies are seen to have won the proxy war against Saudi-backed Sunni fighters in Syria.
Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been intensifying its confrontation with Shiite powerhouse Iran.
The two camps support rival sides in countries across the region, worsening conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
Lebanon has been on the verge of blowing up into full scale violence, and only compromise by Lebanese parties has stopped it doing so in a country still haunted by memories from its own 1975-1990 civil war.
Shiite Hezbollah dominates Lebanon, but it has sought not to provoke the Sunni community, which in turn has avoided crossing the guerrilla force.
The fear among some Lebanese now is that Saudi Arabia will upset that balance, trying to compensate for its losses in proxy wars elsewhere.
In Syria, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed fighters allied with President Bashar Assad’s forces have recaptured large areas and are working to secure a much-prized land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia has been stuck in a fruitless war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, and a Saudi bid to isolate Qatar has failed to achieve its goals.
Saudi fingerprints were seen all over Hariri’s resignation on Saturday.
Unexpectedly, Hariri appeared on Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV in a recorded video from an undisclosed location, haltingly delivering a statement in which he accused Iran of meddling in Arab affairs and the Iran-backed Hezbollah of holding Lebanon hostage.
‘Iran’s arms in the region will be cut off,’ he said, adding that he felt compelled to resign and that his life was endangered.
The Islamic State’s dream of a Middle East caliphate may be over, but Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite powerhouse Iran continue to worsen conflicts across the region as they battle to reign supreme.
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The resignation of Lebanon’s Saudi-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri has thrust Lebanon back onto the front line of the Middle East’s most biting rivalry, pitting a mostly Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE against Shiite Iran and its allies.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim leader, had faced the seemingly impossible task of presiding over a government under the control of Iran-backed Hezbollah. The Shiite militant party is accused of killing his father, Rafik, in 2005 and in his resignation speech on Saturday he suggested he now fears for his own life.
But he was known to tow the Saudi line and his shock resignation suggests Saudi Arabia may have a new plan of action for the country.
The kingdom had long backed the Sunnis in Lebanon’s multi-sectarian political system – and during the civil war – but on Monday it accused the tiny Arab country of declaring war against it because of aggression by Hezbollah.
The statement comes as the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where Hezbollah had been ensuring President Bashar Assad’s regime was not toppled by a pro-democracy movement, winds down.
Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, warned just last month that Saudi Arabia was seeking ways to compensate for the loss of Syria as a place where it could defy and bleed Iran. ‘A renewed desire to reverse their regional fortunes could lead them to try regaining a foothold in Lebanon,’ he wrote.
Hezbollah is returning its energy to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia only wants a leader in the country if it can withstand Hezbollah’s pressure.
It’s believed they did not see Hariri as the man for that job.
In Syria the civil war is not completely over but Iran and its allies are seen to have won the proxy war against Saudi-backed rebels.
Hezbollah and other fighters allied with Assad’s forces have recaptured large areas and are working to secure a much-prized land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia has been stuck in a fruitless war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, and a Saudi bid to isolate Qatar has failed to achieve its goals.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, and his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), have this week made clear their intention to continue to fight against Iran in Yemen.
Riyadh and Tehran have been trading fierce accusations over their involvement in the country, where they back opposing sides.
In the latest flare-up Saudi Arabia said an intercepted missile attack on the country, allegedly by Tehran-backed rebels in Yemen, ‘may amount to an act of war’.
MBS said on Tuesday that Iran’s decision to supply rockets to militias in Yemen constitutes a ‘direct military aggression’ against the kingdom.
Tehran in turn accused Riyadh of committing war crimes in Yemen, raising tensions further.
And Hezbollah and the Houthis, as Yemen’s Shiite rebels are known, have denied any role by the Lebanese group in the war in the Arabian Peninsula country.
The resignation of Lebanon’s Hariri also has significant implications for Israel, Daniel Shapiro, President Obama’s Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, said in a column for Haaretz newspaper this week.
‘It is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hezbollah war,’ he wrote.
Shapiro suggests Saudi may have pulled Hariri out of his office to leave Hezbollah ‘with the blame and responsibility for… caring for Syrian refugees to mopping up Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates’.
This could lead Hezbollah to confront Israel as means of securing support from its people in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have become unlikely allies. Their common ground? Stopping nuclear Iran reigning supreme in the region.
For Israel, partnering with Saudi-Arabia to quash Hezbollah would be considered key to helping them deal with an old enemy.
Saudi Arabia’s bid to isolate Qatar appears to have been fruitless.
Instead of bringing the world’s wealthiest nation back into its folds by forcing it into a diplomatic corner, Doha has forcefully rejected all Saudi demands.
Most importantly, Qatar has refused to curtail relations with Iran, with whom it shares the world’s largest reservoir of natural gas.
Iran and Turkey have helped Qatar survive amid Saudi and its Gulf allies suffocating sanctions and thus Tehran has scored another goal in the cold war dominating the political landscape in the Middle East.
With all the above perceived losses against Iran that Saudi Arabia has felt in Syria and Qatar, it is no wonder that Riyadh’s patience over Hezbollah is running thin and Lebanon is in its sights.
The resignation came exactly a year after Hariri formed a coalition government that included Hezbollah, shortly after Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and Hezbollah ally, was elected president.
That arrangement was the product of a rare understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran for calm in Lebanon, ending a two-year period during which the presidency was vacant.
Saudi officials have vowed to crush Hezbollah and recently have been inciting Lebanese to rise against the Shiite militant group, asserting they should openly say whether they are with or against it. Saudi Arabia, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, says the group should not be part of a future Lebanese government.
For its part, the Hezbollah leader has been one of the kingdom’s harshest critics and it is not uncommon for Hezbollah supporters to chant ‘Death to Al Saud’ in their rallies – a reference to the Saudi royal family.
At the very least, Hariri’s resignation could mean another long period without a government for Lebanon, at a time when its economy is struggling under a ballooning public debt that has reached more than $75 billion – 140 percent of its gross domestic product, a debt-to-GDP ratio that is among the highest in the world.
According to Lebanon’s power-sharing deal, the president should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
But given Hariri’s wide support among Sunnis, it may be difficult for any Sunni politician to assume the post of prime minister without alienating the Sunni community.
And it will be impossible to form a Cabinet without Hezbollah, since the militant group and its allies enjoy wide support among both Shiites and Christians.
Today it was revealed Hariri travelled to the UAE a day after Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war against it because of aggression by Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
Hariri left Riyadh early on Tuesday for Abu Dhabi to meet the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Hariri-owned Future TV and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya reported.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Tuesday that Iran’s decision to supply rockets to militias in Yemen constitutes a ‘direct military aggression’ against the kingdom.
A rocket fired from Yemen intercepted on the outskirts of Riyadh hours after Hariri’s resignation on Saturday.
On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told CNN the rocket ‘was an Iranian missile launched by Hezbollah’.
With his sweeping royal purge, Saudi Arabia’s future king has upended a decades-old system of governance adopted by previous rulers in what analysts describe as a bold but risky power play.
Dozens of political and business figures were arrested at the weekend in what Saudi authorities have dubbed an anti-corruption swoop, including billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, while powerful royals such as the national guard chief were sacked.
The dramatic clampdown on business figures could deal a blow to investor confidence,
potentially derailing sweeping Vision 2030 reforms, the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The purge underscores an unprecedented restructuring of the kingdom as Prince Mohammed dismantles a governance model involving consensus within the royal family, while he amasses extraordinary power.
‘The structure of dynastic rule established over the past few decades is being reshaped into a more centralised monarchical system,’ said Jane Kinninmont, of London-based think tank Chatham House.
‘MBS is disrupting the model of Saudi government,’ Kinninmont said using an acronym widely used for the crown prince.
Saudi authorities hailed the dramatic crackdown as a bold initiative to root out corruption.
But analysts question whether the issue serves as a guise for Prince Mohammed to consolidate power by eliminating rivals opposed to his reform drive and eventual succession as king.
‘The dismissals and detentions suggest that Prince Mohammed rather than forging alliances is extending his iron grip to… counter opposition,’ said James Dorsey from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
‘It raises questions about the reform process that increasingly is based on a unilateral rather than a consensual rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract.’
Prince Mohammed’s supporters lionise him as an enlightened disrupter of the status quo as he pursues dramatic social and economic reforms to modernise the kingdom and prepare for a post-oil era.
His anti-graft campaign follows other bold moves, including a royal decree allowing women to drive from next June and clipping the powers of the religious police.
His ambitions were on display at an investor summit in Riyadh two weeks ago, where global business titans were shown blueprints for multibillion dollar projects, including a futuristic megacity with robots and driverless cars.
The venue of the summit, Riyad’s Ritz Carlton hotel, is now rumoured to be the site where many of the arrested elites are being held.
Police cars surround the palatial complex, with its imposing gates clamped shut.
‘The anti-corruption sweep has included individuals who had been seen as potential sources of resistance to elements of MBS’s various projects,’ said Kinninmont.
The sweep has triggered uncertainty among businesses at a time when the kingdom is seeking to attract badly needed investments amid a protracted oil slump.
Among those being held, aside from Prince Al-Waleed, is Waleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the influential Arab satellite network MBC, as well as construction tycoon Bakr Bin Laden and billionaire Saleh Kamal.
Research firm Capital Economics said the arrests could deal a short-term ‘blow’ to the economy as opposition towards Prince Mohammed builds, potentially threatening his reform drive.
Geneva’s Mirabaud Securities warned that the purge, including the arrest of Prince Al-Waleed who has invested billions in companies around the world, could spook the private sector in the short term and ‘intensify capital flight’ from Saudi Arabia.
But seemingly unfazed, government social media channels have replayed a months-old interview with Prince Mohammed in which he stressed that neither ministers nor business tycoons will be spared if found guilty of corruption.
It is a message that resonates with the masses who seethe over a culture of privilege among old-generation royals.
‘Cynics calling it a power grab but actually power had been already consolidated,’ tweeted Ali Shihabi, director of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation who is said to be close to the establishment.
‘This is about reshaping elite behavior by picking high profile symbols. (Its) message is that house cleaning starts at the top.’
But experts warn that the purge could trigger a backlash especially as Prince Mohammed seeks to consolidate his control over the security services.
He ousted Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the 64-year-old son of the late king Abdullah, as the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
The internal security force has long been seen as a local of tribal power and a stronghold of king Abdullah’s family.
In June, he also toppled the previous crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, ousting him from the interior ministry.
‘Such dramatic changes are bound to meet some resistance and opposition,’ Kinninmont said.
‘Since there are few permitted avenues for expressing opposition and criticism in Saudi Arabia, (we) inevitably wonder whether opposition is brewing behind the scenes.’