Lara Marlowe: Macron mediating in Lebanese-Saudi crisis

Saad Hariri’s Paris visit comes amid odd resignation and tense political situation

President Emmanuel Macron has invited the embattled Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Hariri, his wife and three children to lunch at the Élysée Palace on Saturday. It is hoped that Hariri's journey from Riyadh to Paris will put an end to the two-week-old crisis precipitated by Hariri's bizarre, televised resignation on November 14th.

It's not clear whether Hariri should be called "prime minister" or "former prime minister". His entourage still refer to him as "prime minister," and the Lebanese president Michel Aoun says the resignation cannot be considered official until Hariri hands him a letter in person. Aoun accuses Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, of holding Hariri hostage in Riyadh.

Macron seemed to confirm this interpretation of events when he called for the Lebanese leader's "freedom of movement" to be respected. Building on France's close economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia, Macron stopped in Riyadh during the night of November 9th-10th, on his way back from the United Arab Emirates. MBS came to the airport to meet Macron, and the two young leaders talked for three hours in the middle of the night.

Macron spoke with the Saudi crown prince several more times this week, by telephone and text message. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, travelled to Riyadh on Thursday to organise Hariri's exit.


Exile speculation

Macron said he invited Hariri to Paris “for several days”, leading to speculation that he could be starting a long exile in Paris. Hariri holds dual Lebanese and Saudi nationality. His wife and children live in Riyadh. The entire Middle East is waiting to see what happens next.

In a television interview on November 13th, Hariri, still pale and strained, promised to return to Beirut "within two or three days". He implied he might reverse his resignation if Hizbullah – the Lebanon-based militant Shia Islamist grouping – stopped "endangering" Lebanon through involvement in regional conflicts.

Hariri reiterated Saudi accusations that Hizbullah is fomenting unrest among Shia Muslims in Yemen, Bahrain and Koweit. Riyadh says Hizbullah was involved when Yemeni Houthis recently fired a missile over Riyadh. Hariri said the Arabs could impose economic sanctions on Lebanon, and expel some 400,000 Lebanese workers from Gulf countries if such meddling continued.

MBS has woken up to the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is winning the power struggle that started with the 1979 revolution. By invading Iraq in 2003, George W Bush handed that country, with its Shia majority, to neighbouring Iran on a platter. Iran and Hizbullah prevented Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from being overthrown. To Israel's consternation, Hizbullah is now entrenched in Syria as well as Lebanon. Lebanon remains, as the late Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah used to say, "a lung through which Iran breathes".

Iran continues to consolidate this “Shia crescent” from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The near-total military defeat of Islamic State, also known as Isis, has reignited Shia-Sunni rivalry going back to the death of the Prophet Mohamed in the seventh century.

Alleged sequestration

MBS’s clumsy attempt to thwart Iranian influence backfired. Hariri is a lacklustre figure compared to his late father Rafiq, who was assassinated, probably by Hizbullah and Syrian intelligence, on Valentine’s Day 2005. Rather than galvanise Lebanon’s Sunnis against Hizbullah, Hariri’s alleged sequestration in Riyadh became a rallying point for Lebanese nationalism. Giant portraits of Hariri were posted in the streets of Lebanese cities, and the slogan “Free Saad” went viral.

Macron’s diplomacy has allowed the Saudi crown prince to save face. But it hasn’t ended the crisis between Riyadh and Tehran. Some analysts believe that President Donald Trump’s refusal in mid-October to certify Iran’s compliance with the July 2015 nuclear accord emboldened MBS.

Trump's son-in-law and Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, has been flying back and forth between Jerusalem and Riyadh in the hope of forging a Saudi-Israeli alliance. The chief of staff of the Israeli army, Gen Gadi Eizenkot, this week told the Saudi online publication Etaph that Israel is prepared to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia. "We must establish a major plan to stop the danger represented by Iran," Eizenkot said.

Trump’s distrust

Trump’s intense distrust of the Islamic Republic is shared by the generals in his entourage, and by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. French officials fear that the emerging US-Saudi-Israeli axis is spoiling for a fight with Tehran. Macron wants to calm things down.

“The worst-case scenario is that the Saudis would arm Lebanese Sunnis against Hizbullah,” says a high-ranking French official. But Lebanese Sunnis are traditionally more interested in making money. Instability, in the form of assassinations and car-bombings, would be more likely than an all-out war. Fundamentalists in the Lebanese Sunni cities of Tripoli and Sidon, some of them Palestinian, could also be used against Hizbullah.

Military experts say the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel have far more firepower than Iran and its Syrian, Hizbullah and Russian allies. But for the time being, the latter are in a position of strength. MBS has bungled his first attempt to stand up to Tehran.

Macron is conscious of the extreme volatility of the region. But it may be impossible to reconcile Tehran and Riyadh, Shia and Sunni. All the more so because Macron’s attempts to improve relations with Tehran have not borne fruit. A promised French presidential visit to Tehran has not yet been scheduled, and foreign minister Le Drian’s preparatory visit, which was to have taken place this month, has been postponed.