By Robert Fisk
14 November 2017
A weird and highly constrained “interview” on his personally owned television channel by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was made under Saudi duress in Riyadh. The “interview”, in which Hariri – who claimed he had resigned last week and who on Sunday said he has “complete freedom” in Saudi Arabia but wanted to “look after his family as well” – was made after the Saudis declined to invite a Beirut-based Future TV crew to Saudi Arabia and insisted that their own television personnel filmed him.
Thus when he was questioned by popular Lebanese presenter Paula Yakoubian in the presence of Future’s Lebanese director of news Nadim Koteich in Riyadh, the Saudis were in a position to cut him off or edit Hariri’s words if he strayed away from what was very possibly a vetted script. For the “interview” itself reflected not the views which Hariri has persistently made public at home in Lebanon but those of the Saudi government under the effective leadership of the increasingly aberrant Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
Hariri, who appeared unsmiling on Future television (he always smiles when he is interviewed) said he wrote his own resignation speech more than a week ago – although not a single Lebanese political party believes this – and would return to Lebanon “very soon” (in a matter of days, he claimed) adding the extremely odd remark that “I wanted to make a positive shock [sic] for the Lebanese people so the people know how dangerous is the situation we are in.” He said that on returning to Lebanon, he would confirm his “resignation” in accordance with the country’s constitution. But how on earth did he think he could “shock” Lebanon by resigning in the Saudi capital of Riyadh?
Could this have something, then, to do with the state of finances – or near bankruptcy – of his Saudi Oger company, which is supposedly owed $9bn by the Saudi state and whose own employees in Saudi Arabia (including many French citizens) are now trying to sue him for months of back pay? Ominously, Lebanese officials have received copies of apparent Saudi government documents showing that Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship, is expected to make an appearance in a Riyadh court to respond to Oger’s unpaid workers. He is named in the Saudi judicial papers as Saadedin Rafiq al-Hariri – Rafiq, of course, was his murdered ex-prime minister father’s first name – and his Saudi identification number is present.
Yet the date of the Hariri court appearance is given in the papers as 24/2/1438 in the Islamic calendar, which corresponds to 25 November 2016, almost exactly a year ago. Court papers in Saudi Arabia can be delayed indefinitely – but then reasserted. So this court appearance in Riyadh has been hanging over Hariri for a year already. Ominously, the same court asked for an appearance two days earlier (on 23 November) by Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest of the princely prisoners already detained for alleged “corruption”. Like Saad Hariri, al-Talal is also of Lebanese origin. Even more worryingly, the Riyadh Ritz Hotel in which many of the 200 arrestees – princes, ex-ministers and businessmen – are being held for corruption investigations is now almost overflowing and the Saudi government has reportedly asked for more bookings in the Riyadh Marriott Hotel. In other words, there are going to be more arrests, no doubt including some of the Crown Prince’s political enemies.
But further traps lie around the corner. The Lebanese Catholic Patriarch, Bechara Rai, is leaving for a one-day official visit to Riyadh today (Monday) and has been told he can meet Hariri. President Michel Aoun, however, met for two hours with Rai on Sunday telling the prelate that he feared the Saudis would give him a “resignation” note signed by Hariri and tell him to take it back to Beirut – so that Hariri’s resignation would be “official”. Aoun told Rai he could not accept the paper if he brought it – but it’s still unclear whether Rai would accept it or not. The visit of so senior a Lebanese Christian clergyman is unprecedented. So which of Rai’s several characters will win: the churchman or the extremely wily politician which he is also?
While Hariri’s “return” is debated, however, the Lebanese authorities have become extremely disturbed that the Crown Prince will not only send all Lebanese expatriates working in the Kingdom back home to Beirut – well over 200,000 of them – but will withdraw all Saudi investments from Lebanon. Even more disturbing now is a reported threat – which the government in Beirut is also inclined to believe – that the Saudis will try to have Lebanon suspended from the Arab League. This would not please the Egyptians or Jordanians or the Iraqis. But nowhere other than the Middle East is the old saying more accurate: that he who pays the piper calls the tune. And we all know who pays the piper in this part of the world.
And it’s worth noting the immense Saudi economic power in Lebanon. The Beirut authorities have calculated that oil and petrol reserves in the Mediterranean that belong to Lebanon are worth at least $600bn (£460m) and that the Saudis may well want a share. And despite Iran’s promise to sustain Lebanon economically, the figures suggest that this would be impossible. Each year, the 1,200 Lebanese residents in Iran send back $300,000 (£230,000) to Lebanon. Lebanese in Saudi Arabia send back $4.5bn. Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese expatriates have been worth $70bn to Lebanon over the past 25 years. Lebanese exports to Iran are currently worth only $3m. To Saudi Arabia, they are worth $378m a year, including much agricultural produce. Are the compromises Hariri was talking about an attempt to salvage the Lebanese economy if the Hezbollah does not come to heel?
Yet the one immensely wealthy Gulf nation which the Saudis are already trying to destroy, Qatar, may come to the rescue. Qatar has just quietly announced that the Lebanese will no longer need visas to enter the emirate and can merely present their passports for an entry stamp at Doha airport. This extraordinary decision has been accompanied by quiet suggestions from the Qataris that if the Saudis withdraw their money from Beirut, Qatar will make up the difference from its own funds – and thus spite Saudi Arabia.
It’s as well to remember at this point that the whole purpose of this assault on Lebanon’s sovereign integrity is to force the fall of the government, new elections and the expulsion of the Shia Hezbollah ministers in the cabinet – thus breaking Iran’s power in Lebanon. It seems this has all along been the Crown Prince’s intention. In his “interview” on Sunday night, Hariri called for compromise by the Hezbollah when he returned to Beirut if he was going to withdraw his resignation – the first suggestion that he might declare this infamous resignation letter invalid. But what sort of “compromise” was he talking about? Then Hezbollah, which is indeed paid by the Iranian government, is not going to disarm or pull out of the Lebanese government – an act which would indeed bring down the cabinet in Beirut.
“My life means nothing to me,” Hariri told the Lebanese on Sunday night. “My concern is the unity of the country.” Well, maybe.
So why not just get on the next plane to Beirut? All this – in the lands of political irony – has caused much amusement to the Lebanese who have been sending to each other page five of the now defunct Beirut newspaper Hadaf (which means “goal” or “target”), whose edition for 28 February 1967 carried the headline: “The Saudi Threat to Lebanon Provokes Different Reactions”. The “threat” included expelling Lebanese workers from Saudi Arabia and the withdrawal of Saudi funds from Beirut – exactly the problems which the Lebanese government now fear they are confronting. At the time, the Saudis were trying to dissuade the Lebanese from supporting Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia’s Egyptian nationalist enemy, Gamal Abdul Nasser, just as today they are trying to persuade them to abandon Hezbollah and Iran. Alas, the Lebanese, including the Sunnis, preferred Nasser. The Hadaf newspaper said that some Lebanese were supporting “moderation”, others “neutrality” – the very policy the Beirut government has been trying to follow in the present crisis.
And there’s one final historical irony in this dangerous farce of the present day, which has been rediscovered by Nicholas Noe, an American colleague of mine who writes for Mideastwire.com. Exactly 74 years ago last week, it transpires, the Free French authorities under Charles de Gaulle, kidnapped Riyad al-Solh, the statesman who would become Lebanon’s first prime minister – in an attempt to prevent Lebanese independence. Even more piquant is the fact that al-Solh was the grandfather-in-law of Al-Waleed bin Talal, the wealthy Saudi prince who has been put under house arrest now by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Maybe the French – whose own prime minister Emmanuel Macron is currently trying to persuade the Crown Prince to send Hariri back to Beirut – have more in common with the Saudis than we (or they) realised.