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Lebanese PM Hariri Visits Saudi Arabia For First Time Since Resignation Saga

Spur-of-the-moment trip raises new questions about Riyadh’s influence over Beirut

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Saudi Arabia Wednesday, his first trip to the Sunni nation since announcing his resignation from the Saudi capital under bizarre circumstances in November. Hariri’s resignation—which was withdrawn two weeks later—triggered a major diplomatic crisis and gave rise to rumors that he was coerced into quitting by Riyadh in an effort to destabilize Lebanon and thus reduce arch-foe Shiite Iran’s influence in the country, which is projected through its Hizbullah underling.

Hariri’s spur-of-the-moment visit comes just two days after he met in Beirut with a high-ranking Saudi envoy, raising further questions about the power the Kingdom exerts over the Lebanese premier. Notably, following Monday’s encounter Hariri stressed that, “Saudi Arabia’s main goal is for Lebanon to be its own master and it is keen on Lebanon’s full independence.”

Sulaiman Al-Akaili, a Riyadh-based political analyst contended to The Media line that Hariri’s visit comes within the framework of attempts by the House of Saud to normalize relations with Lebanon. “There used to be solid ties between the two Arab states but the Iranian involvement has been harmful. Saudi Arabia does not want Lebanon to follow the path of Iraq,” which some analysts increasingly view as an Iranian satrapy.

In this respect, some observers point to the Saudi envoy’s meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hibullah ally and thus Saudi political opponent, as evidence that Riyadh is indeed attempting to maintain its influence, however limited it may be, by stabilizing the situation; whereas others believe it is a concerted effort to at least partially pull Beirut out of Tehran’s orbit.

As regards the latter possibility, given Hizbullah’s near-total dependence on Iran, which, in turn, has provided its proxy with near-total dominance over Lebanon, any such Saudi campaign is unlikely to yield much success.

Tony Abu-Nejem, a political scientist based in Beirut, told The Media Line that, due to the over-arching circumstances, the Lebanese population is watching Hariri’s trip closely, if not with some suspicion. “The visit is very critical as it will define the future of Lebanese-Saudi relations. It will also effect Lebanon’s internal political situation as considering the current regional equation Hariri may end up on a side that is against Riyadh.”

In fact, the Saudis may be adopting a more conciliatory tone for a third potential reason; that is, out of fear of losing its hold on Hariri, their primary conduit through which to project power in Lebanon.

The Lebanese leader historically has taken a hard line on Hizbullah and its patron, affirming at the time of his resignation, for example, that, “Iran has a strong desire to destroy the Arab world.… Despite my efforts, Iran continues to abuse Lebanon.” In the same speech, Hariri declared that, “Hizbullah [has amassed] power [through] weaponry, which it claims is for resistance but is being used against our Syrian and Yemeni brothers and even the Lebanese people.”

However, the Lebanese premier struck an entirely different chord on Sunday, the day before meeting with the Saudi official, which could have contributed to Riyadh’s apparent summoning of him. In an interview aired on Lebanese television, Hariri stated, in stark contrast to his prior assertion, “we don’t want to take [away] Hizbullah’s weapons.”

Regarding both Hariri’s resignation and current trip to Saudi Arabia, Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a Senior Fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former Israeli National Security Council official, explained to The Media Line that, “it was a surprise then and it’s a surprise now.

“It’s very hard to predict [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammad bin Salman’s next moves so we should all be very cautious. MBS was under a lot of pressure from the U.S., Europe and even other Arab countries to try fix the situation in Lebanon.”

To this end, Dr. Guzansky noted that following the suspension of Hariri’s resignation and return to Beirut, bin Salman proclaimed to the Washington Post that, “now he’s [Hariri] in a better position in Lebanon.”

While this suggests the Crown Prince views his influence over Hariri, and, by extension, within Lebanon, in a positive light, the Lebanese premier’s shotgun trip to Riyadh may be a sign of the future Saudi king’s growing uncertainty.

(Dima Abumaria and Benji Flacks, a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program, contributed to this report)