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The Middle East on Fire
Saudi Arabia Ups the Stakes in Lebanese Power Play

The return of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from exile yesterday shows that Saudi Arabia is making bold moves to solidify its influence in that country. As the New York Times reports:

[Hariri’s] surprise return comes at a delicate time for the country after a week of bloody battles between the army and Sunni extremists from Syria has exacerbated the Lebanon’s own simmering sectarian tensions.

The seizure by the militants of Arsal, a mostly Sunni town filled with Syrian refugees and surrounded by Shiite villages, has further entangled Lebanon into Syria’s catastrophic three-year-old civil war.

Hariri’s return is being seen as a bid to reassert his leadership over the Sunni community in Lebanon amid growing concern that many in the community are being radicalized by the increasingly sectarian war next door. […]

Hariri, a Saudi-backed politician, left Lebanon in January 2011 after his government was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies. He has since split his time between Paris and Saudi Arabia, citing concerns for his safety.

In December, Saudi Arabia guaranteed $3 billion of French military equipment to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and yesterday it announced through Hariri that it would be adding a direct donation of $1 billion. When these moves are coupled with Hariri’s today, a broader strategic picture emerges.

Having worked with Egypt and Israel to pressure its rival Hamas in Gaza, Saudi Arabia is now now turning its eyes on Lebanon. The return of Hariri makes sense as part of a broader, Saudi-backed push to solidify Sunni influence in the Lebanese government. This would reduce the sway of Hezbollah, which is Shiite, Iranian-backed, and Assad-friendly, both politically and militarily.

Saudi Arabia also seems to have secured some form of French cooperation, given the French military equipment and Hariri’s ties to that country. The French remain influential in their ex-colony, especially among Lebanese Christians.

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Israel, is building a stabilizing alignment against both Sunni extremism, as exemplified by Hamas and ISIS, and Shiite Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. It looks like Lebanon has become the next testing ground for this strategy.

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  • Corlyss

    Wouldn’t greater Saudi efforts to stabilize the region imply that they have to defer if not abandon its rabid pursuit of Wahabbi extremism?

    • mc

      The Saudis can be remarkably flexible in matters of religion when close-to-home security issues are involved. As this attitude outrages the religious nutters, the Saudis compensate by patronizing the strictest interpretations of Islam in places where it doesn’t much matter to them. Pakistan and Afghanistan, Europe, for example.

    • El Gringo

      I too, am curious about this. I’ve never understood why the Saudis would lift a little finger to fight ISIS as the group is successfully doing everything the Saudis have dreamed of doing for the past 60 years. A radical and devoted Islamic sect purging the Shia, terrifying Iran, placing the population under strict Sharia law, keeping oil prices high, and even giving the finger to the Americans. For the Saudis, what’s not to love?

      • B-Sabre

        Because ISIS would probably destroy the House of Saud in order to establish the Caliphate. The Saudis are too close to the “crusaders” to be trusted as leaders of Islam.

      • Corlyss

        “For the Saudis, what’s not to love?”

        The fact that the Saudis don’t control ISIS.

        • f1b0nacc1

          PRECISELY! It is one thing to advocate a policy, it is another entirely to stand by and what someone else implement it.

  • lukelea

    “Ultimately, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Israel, is building a stabilizing alignment against both Sunni extremism . . .”

    This is delusional. Saudi Arabia has long been under the thumb of Sunni extremism. What does the writer think Wahabism is? Why were almost all the 9/11 hijackers Saudi? etc. Wahabis are true believers. I doubt they will find anything objectionable about ISIS. The Royal Family only stays in power because of Wahabi support. That’s why rich Saudis build extremist mosques all over the world. The only dangerous Muslims, as far as I can tell, are the ones who take their religion too seriously (or too literally, if you prefer to put it that way, who model themselves on the actual, historical behavior of their founder). Saudi Arabia is full of them. Get real.

    • LarryD

      It’s more complicated than that. The House of Saud has thousands of princes, whose personal beliefs run the gamut from Wahabi fundamentalism to more than a little Westernized. And the House of Saud generally is in the position of riding the tiger of Wahabism. As mc points out below, the House supports Wahabist activities as long as they are far enough away as to not threaten the House. But the House of Saud recognizes ISIS

      to be a threat to the House, just as Iran is.

      Do not confuse the Royal Family with the Wahabists, just because the Royals have to keep buying Wahabi support, doesn’t mean they have the same goals, or even a lot of overlapping interests.

      And recall the nature of Islamic sectarianism, different sects can ally against a common enemy, then turn on each other, hammer and tongs..

    • Breif2

      With due respect, Luke, your comment is as one-sided as the original post. Yes, it is indeed ironic that the Saudis seem to be building a coalition against Daesh (ISIS) (as they did against the Muslim Brotherhood), given that the Wahabbism that they have done so much to support, whether out of conviction or cynicism, is ideologically indistinguishable from it. But whaddayaknow, people are also motivated by base instincts such as earthly power, and the Sauds have not shown themselves to be immune to such considerations..

      Bottom line, we and the Sauds are most definitely not friends. If Daesh beheads all of them (after crucifying them), I will not shed a tear, to the contrary. Unfortunately, they remain an invaluable ally, a la Uncle Joe in WW2. It seems to me that the number one priority right now is to halt Daesh’s momentum, and if the Saudis wish to help us (for their own self-interested reasons) by committing some of their money and ideological infrastructure to the fight, ahlan wa-sahlan.

      And who knows, maybe Corlyss’ wish will come true and they will reconsider their long strategy.

      (“Ditto” to most of the other comments thus far.)

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