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Tensions rise as Middle East giants play for power

Recent events in the Middle East risk tipping the region into fresh violence. BRAD BLITZ joins the dots between alarming developments in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel and Iran to explain

In recent weeks, Western media reporting on the Middle East has concentrated on the dramatic assertion of power by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, under whose authority some 50 Saudi royals and dignitaries were detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

Some commentators have described the actions as a ‘purge’. Others have borrowed the royal household’s language. The crown prince was clamping down against corruption and money laundering in an effort to clean up permissive practices.

While the precise machinations remain opaque, it is quite clear that these events should not be seen as a local matter. The ongoing recalibration of the Saudi household is generating significant new fissures across a volatile region.

If anyone wanted further proof of the degree to which sudden changes in Riyadh might affect political sensitivities elsewhere, they need only look to Lebanon. Earlier this month, just hours before the announcement that 11 princes, including the billionaire and satellite media mogul Alwaleed bin Talal, had been arrested at the instruction of Prince Mohammed, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation. He did so, not from Beirut, but from Riyadh.

Looking uncomfortable as he read his resignation speech, the Prime Minister condemned Hezbollah for destabilising his country and reported that his decision was motivated by the threat of his assassination at the hands of the Iranian-backed militia.

Initially, Western journalists were quick to accept Hariri’s story. They recalled the assassination of his father Rafic in 2005, which seemed to lend credibility to the claim that he had taken an independent decision to resign out of fear for his life. They also remembered how Hezbollah, the chief suspect at the time, was later accused of frustrating the investigation, and also the murder of a Lebanese security chief in 2012.

Yet, commentators in Lebanon were not so quick to accept the official story behind the resignation. They pointed out that he had already accommodated his father’s alleged killers Hezbollah into his government and that while it might have pained him to do so, he was a pragmatist who understood that governing a coalition in the divided state required flexibility. Hariri accepted that he needed to work with Hezbollah in order to hold down a government, something that was lacking even just a year ago.

To the Lebanese public then, Hariri’s resignation came out of the blue. Hezbollah immediately informed the press that they had not called for his resignation and contested the facts. Instead, Hezbollah put forward the counter-claim that the Saudi crown prince was pulling Hariri’s strings in the hope of dominating a region which, with the success of Assad in Syria, and the demise of Islamic State in Iraq, has now fallen under the influence of Iran.

This being the Middle East, there were many further layers to the story. Hariri, a dual national of both Lebanon and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was supposedly free to leave Saudi – except he wasn’t. Within 24 hours of his resignation, Lebanese media reported that the prime minister was under house arrest. Then, later, he appeared in Abu Dhabi. In the meantime, the president of Lebanon refused to accept his resignation until it was delivered on home soil.

Added to such regional intrigue are the wider geo-political considerations attached to any significant developments in the Middle East.

While co-operation between Iran and Russia has been evidenced by their joint military presence in Syria, the Saudi-US coalition has principally concentrated in attacks against Islamist groups in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is engaged in a high-intensity conflict. In the case of Syria and Lebanon, their on the ground presence was less obvious, less organised.

Then, from the USA, came additional curve balls. Jared Kushner, son-in-law to, and trusted advisor of, president Donald Trump took a recent unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia, a country which has been actively restocking its arsenal with US and British-made weaponry. As with so much of the activity of the Trump inner circle, the actual reasons for Kushner’s visit remain opaque, but it is being interpreted as an attempt to re-engage Trump’s policy on the Middle East and Iran, with a harsher line on the activities of Tehran and its allies.

It is all creating a febrile atmosphere in an already fractious region. Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Lebanese security expert Bilal Y Saab described how the Saudi crown prince’s new assertiveness, coupled with Trump’s determination to institute an aggressive new strategy on Iran was raising the risk of new conflicts on multiple fronts.

That threat has escalated, as stories trended online, reporting that Prince Mohammed’s actions and the removal of Hariri, could see fresh fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, who fought an inconclusive war in 2006.

This fear was given additional weight following statements made by Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and other military advisors, who hold Iran – not Saudi Arabia – responsible for Hariri’s departure, and the instability created by it. Lieberman has suggested the resignation, and threat of assassination he says prompted it, demonstrates the total control Iran and its Hezbollah proxy have over Lebanon.

Like his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, Lieberman has never missed an opportunity to raise the spectre of Iranian militancy. The charge Israel faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran has been repeated over his years in power and has prompted lawmakers in both Jerusalem and Washington to press for further legislation to reign in Tehran. In recent weeks, the US Congress has passed one bill and debated another that would apply sanctions on Hezbollah, Iran and their allies.

Amid such tensions, talk of war is growing, and, once again, Lebanon could be in the firing line. One senior Israeli security cabinet member and former IDF general was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as being prepared for war against Iran and Lebanon – not just Hezbollah – warning that Lebanon would be bombed ‘into the stone age’.

While Israeli newspapers have suggested that war between Israel and Hezbollah may be imminent, the Gulf states are doing their bit to escalate tensions. Both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have instructed their citizens to leave Lebanon.

It is uncertain exactly what twists and turns may yet occur within the Saudi kingdom, but it is already clear that the ripples from Riyadh will be felt in Lebanon, a country which has already suffered greatly from interference from Saudia Arabia, Iran and Israel. The removal of Hariri, not to mention those overlaying local, regional and global tensions, may yet end in a new round of conflict.

Brad Blitz is professor of international politics at Middlesex University and visiting professor in the Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics

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