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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Nov 2017  The Beirut gamble: Its real target is Tehran

The Beirut gamble: Its real target is Tehran

Published : Nov 23, 2017, 1:46 am IST
Updated : Nov 23, 2017, 1:46 am IST

The ostracisation of Qatar has paid no obvious dividends. The trend in Syria does not conform to Saudi wishes.

Robert Mugabe  (Photo: AP)
 Robert Mugabe (Photo: AP)

Harare and Hariri have dominated the international news cycle in recent weeks. The Zimbabwean capital has witnessed a drama in which the 93-year-old incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, is refusing to resign after 37 years in power, despite pointed indications from the military, the ruling party and the broader populace that his time is up.

The considerably younger Lebanese leader Saad Hariri, meanwhile, tendered an unexpected resignation at an unlikely venue after having served for less than a year in his latest stint as Prime Minister. There was little indication that it was anything other than a routine summons from his Saudi sponsors that took him to Riyadh at the beginning of the month. Apparently, he was effectively taken into custody on arrival, and made to read out a dictated resignation speech in which he spewed out the standard Saudi line on Iranian interference and cited a threat to his life.


No corroborating evidence has emerged for the latter claim, and while Hezbollah, widely seen (with reasonable cause) as an Iranian proxy, exercises considerable influence in Lebanon and constitutes a part of the ruling coalition, there have been no notable indications of a recent change in its role or attitude that would justify a tantrum at the top.

It is far more likely that the power play was orchestrated by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, although his precise intentions are uncertain.

It may partly have been an attempt to distract attention from his simultaneous domestic machinations, which have involved the detention of a dozen princes and hundreds of Saudi businessmen on the grounds of corruption — a laughable ploy, given that the very foundations of the House of Saud are built on the arbitrary appropriation of national resources.


The primary motivation for provoking regime change in Beirut, however, almost certainly has more to do with the regional tussle against Iran. Hezbollah and its allies have been instrumental in decimating Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, and appear to have become increasingly involved in Yemen after the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition blundered in to teach the Houthis a lesson. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria is viewed as a threat by Israel. Strategically, especially vis-à-vis Iran, the Saudis and Israel have been on the same page in recent years, their unofficial alliance lately confirmed by a Saudi media interview with Israel’s military chief, which must have been sanctioned at the highest levels in Tel Aviv and Riyadh.


The trouble with the Saudi heir’s initiatives, however, is that they have floundered on every front, notwithstanding the Netanyahu-Trump endorsement. Yemen is a depressing humanitarian disaster zone where more than 100 children are dying every day, cholera keeps spreading and avenues of aid delivery are routinely blocked.

The ostracisation of Qatar has paid no obvious dividends. The trend in Syria does not conform to Saudi wishes. And the last thing Lebanon needed was a blow to its invariably delicate balance of power. French President Emmanuel Macron’s intervention may have helped to rescue Hariri from Riyadh (even though, like his assassinated father Rafik Hariri, he is a dual Lebanese — Saudi citizen with lucrative interests in the kingdom’s construction industry), and he is expected back in Beirut today to mark Lebanon’s independence day — and, ostensibly, offer an explanation for why he quit, following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, who refused to accept a resignation tendered in Riyadh. No one seriously expects him to come clean, though. And what the future holds for Lebanon remains unclear. One can only hope that civil strife can be avoided, as well as any incident that provides Israel with an excuse to repeat its devastating excesses against this particular neighbour.


Equally, one must fervently wish that Mohammed bin Salman fails in his evident desire to somehow provoke a confrontation with Iran that draws in Israel and the US.

The horrendous consequences of such an outcome would make themselves felt for decades to come. The crown prince could, though, do his nation, the region and the world a huge service, were his disruptive endeavours to undermine the House of Saud — which is, after all, built on sand.

The crown prince hadn’t yet been born in 1979, which may help to explain why he imagines the kingdom was a repository of “moderate” Islam before the Iranian Revolution. His determination to sideline his troublesome cousins may, however, prove to be just the impetus for implosion that the kingdom requires.


Orthodox elements have always been fuelled by the black gold at their disposal. The oil is not exactly running out just yet, but its reduced value has helped to unleash a desperate bid for alternative sources of wealth and power. Don’t hold your breath, but the end — and a new beginning — may eventuate sooner than anyone expects.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: robert mugabe, mohammed bin salman