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The Prodigal Son Returns

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had a wild November.

Words: Nicholas Norberg

Saad Hariri’s whiplash-inducing November has, thankfully, seen him safely returned to Beirut. Understanding the political crisis triggered by his resignation elucidates the Lebanese political climate and highlights continued Saudi impotence in the region. But before we get to the goods, we’ll have to hack through the weeds. You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat, right? Here’s the timeline:

On November 4th, Saad Hariri resigned as Prime Minister on TV from Riyadh, saying he feared a Hezbollah assassination plot. Hezbollah denied all accusations on the 5th, and Hassan Nasrallah suggested that Saudi Arabia was holding Hariri against his will – considering Mohammad bin Salman arrested dozens of princes in a wide-ranging corruption crackdown the same weekend, the claim wasn’t exactly farfetched.

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo on November 12th to denounce Hezbollah and Iran, despite Egypt’s lack of enthusiasm for taking on Hezbollah. Saad’s brother Bahaa Hariri gave a fiery anti-Hezbollah statement on November 15th, positioning himself as staunchly pro-Saudi and possibly even aiming to supplant Saad. The same day, Lebanese President Michel Aoun closed ranks with Hezbollah by agreeing that Hariri appears to be Riyadh’s captive and demanding his safe return. Also on the 15th, Hariri decided to travel to France at Macron’s invitation to allow tempers to cool.

Tensions finally eased when Hariri returned to Beirut via Cairo on November 21st and suspended his resignation at Aoun’s request. In his return speech, Hariri advocated dialogue to keep the country out of regional conflicts – a reference to Saudi-Iranian competition via Lebanese parties.

So, the Prime Minister is home, he’s not been assassinated, and he isn’t in a Saudi jail. That is reason to celebrate, but it is a mistake to view these three weeks as ephemeral. Hariri’s return narrowly averted a crisis that could have riven Lebanon anew. Lebanese officials deserve praise for not giving in to hysteria, but the timing also reflects Saudi Arabia’s failure to appraise local Lebanese politics and their allies’ willingness to follow them into the breach. It’s another embarrassing moment for Mohammad bin Salman, whose foreign ventures consistently fall short. The war in Yemen will stain his record throughout his rule, the Syrian opposition is scrambling to preserve its role as Assad consolidates territorial gains, and Iran-backed militias exert growing influence in Iraq.

Far from igniting revolt against Iranian influence, the Hariri incident makes clear that Hezbollah is in Lebanon to stay. The group demonstrates willingness to participate in government processes, and enjoys support beyond the Shi’a community it claims to protect. President Aoun especially appreciates the political role Hezbollah plays, cooperating with the group on a range of policy issues through a Parliamentary coalition. He even defends them as necessary to protect Lebanon from Israeli incursions, a persistent fear after the 1978 invasion and 2006 war. Iran’s influence is undeniable, but Hezbollah has outgrown its role as a proxy and today functions both as a sectarian actor and also as a participant in the legitimate side of politics. The power sharing agreement has fundamental shortcomings, but it guarantees basic cohesion and incentivizes participation in government. Its value currently outweighs any merits of renewed conflict, whatever carrots outsiders may dangle.

Nicholas Norberg graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic, and he has worked as a Middle East and Turkey analyst at Dataminr. He currently writes for the Journal on Middle East Politics and Policy at Harvard University, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.

Nicholas Norberg

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