The news came on November 4 in the form of three back-to-back developments in a mere 10 hours. First, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, announced his resignation. That he made the statement from Riyadh told much of the story; that he delivered it with the genuineness of one forced to read his own prison sentence told the rest. The decision was announced by the Lebanese prime minister but it was made in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, had reason to want it to happen. Saudi-Iranian tensions are rising and bin Salman is determined to depict Tehran as the source of all regional evils. For Hariri to preside over a government that includes Hezbollah fundamentally undercut that core message: It meant allowing one of Riyadh’s closest allies to cooperate with Tehran’s most loyal partner. Hariri as prime minister created the impression that coexistence with Hezbollah and by extension with Iran was possible; his departure is designed to erase any doubt. He was asked to assume the prime ministership a year ago, at a time when the goal was to inoculate Lebanon from Saudi-Iranian rivalry; with him gone, Lebanon now is fully exposed to it. It has joined the camp of Saudi Arabia’s enemies.
Act three was the massive Saudi purge in which over 10 princes and dozens of businessmen and senior officials were put under house arrest. This was bin Salman cleaning house, eliminating any potential competing military, political, economic, or media-related source of power. Combined with earlier moves, this means that he now essentially has gone after every one of the regime’s traditional pillars. Some wonder whether, untested and unseasoned, he might have provoked too many enemies at the same time. What he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in ambition however, and for now he stands precisely in the position he craved: able to do away with years of assumed Saudi passivity and refashion as he sees fit both the Kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies, notably in order to more effectively confront Iran.
Lebanon and the region arguably have seen all this before; a leadership vacuum in the context of rising tensions is nothing new. What is new, however, is an unusually apprehensive Israel, an unusually assertive and rash Saudi leadership and, of course, an unusual U.S. president. As for Israel: For months now, it has been sounding alarm bells about Hezbollah’s and Iran’s growing footprint in Syria, and more particularly about the Lebanese movement’s soon-to-be-acquired capacity to indigenously produce precision-guided missiles—a development Israeli officials view as a potential game changer they must thwart.