Saudi Arabia’s King and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have jailed royal family members and business elite in a massive purge. Now they’re training their sights on the Kingdom’s impoverished neighbor: Lebanon.
In an interview with state-owned Al-Arabiya TV, the Kingdom’s Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan accused Lebanon of declaring war against Saudi Arabia, saying the impoverished Arab nation would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia.”
Sabhan directed most of his scorn toward Hezbollah, the Iran-affiliated Lebanese Shi‘ite group, whose power reaches into Lebanon’s government and military.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon were already running high following Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s abrupt resignation Saturday.
In a televised address from Riyadh, Hariri blamed Hezbollah and its powerful ally Iran for his resignation, a sentiment Sabhan amplified Monday. But Hezbollah has rejected Hariri’s claims, and has accused Saudi Arabia’s crown prince of orchestrating his resignation in a bid to destabilize the Lebanese government.
Sabhan did not specify how Saudi Arabia will act against Hezbollah in the days and months to come as a result of this “declaration of war,” but the heated rhetoric has raised fears that Lebanon, a small country that’s home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, will become the latest battleground in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ongoing feud.
Here’s what you need to know:
Saudi Arabia is beating the war drums
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shi’ite Iran have been talking tough for a long time, but instead of directly engaging in conflict, which neither side really wants, they create diplomatic crises and conduct proxy wars in smaller, weaker countries nearby: see Yemen, Qatar, and now Lebanon.
But in recent days, the drums of war have gotten louder, especially on the Saudi side, where officials have accused Iran of carrying out an “act of war” by firing a missile from Yemen towards the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.
“We see this as an act of war,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubair told CNN Monday. “Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.”
This accusation was amplified Tuesday by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a phone call to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. “The involvement of Iran in supplying missiles to the Huthis is a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” the prince said, adding that this “could be considered an act of war.”
Read more: WTF is going on in Saudi Arabia?
The crown prince, or MBS as he is known, has spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s two-year war in Yemen, with the U.S. military providing strategic support, and has demonstrated a predilection for confrontation when it comes to Iran.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of smuggling the parts for the missile into Yemen, then having it assembled by operatives from Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, before firing it toward Riyadh.
Iran has flatly denied the accusations as “baseless,” claiming the missiles were produced “by the Yemenis and their military industry.”
And Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif hit back against the prince’s charges Tuesday, accusing Saudi Arabia of bombing “Yemen to smithereens, killing thousands of innocents including babies, spreading cholera and famine, but of course blames Iran.”
How this factors into the Saudi purge
King Salman and his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have consolidated their power through their massive anti-corruption purge, in what analysts are calling one of the most significant developments in the kingdom’s history.
While it has sent shockwaves throughout the Gulf region and beyond, experts believe the purge is more about internal Saudi politics than regional concerns.
“It is much more domestically driven,” said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.
But by consolidating all the power in his own hands, MBS is laying the groundwork for a dictatorship. And his attitude toward Iran is more aggressive than past leaders, which could introduce a new level of unpredictability from the Saudi side.
“It is not just a hardening of position, but it is actually becoming more and more aggressive as a foreign policy,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said.
How does this impact the U.S. and its close ties to the Kingdom?
The Trump administration has forged much closer ties with Saudi Arabia than previous administrations, which is saying quite a bit. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has fostered an especially close relationship with MBS and has already visited the Kingdom three times in 2017.
Following the purge, Trump continued to cheerlead his relationship with the Kingdom’s favorite son, saying Monday he had “great confidence” that King Salman and the crown prince knew what they were doing.
Saudi Arabia will feel “very emboldened by U.S. support,” Yahya said. Other critics went further, saying the Kingdom’s recent behavior was a result of overly friendly U.S. policy.
Although the White House has been silent on the situation in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia may soon enlist Trump’s support in the action, Kinninmont warned.
“Saudi Arabia will be trying to encourage the U.S. to take further steps to isolate and put further sanctions on the Lebanese government, and if there is a dramatic change in U.S. policy, that could trigger a worse political crisis in Lebanon,” Kinninmont said.
Tensions in the region have reached fever pitch in the last 24 hours, but what happens next is far from clear. That hasn’t stopped analysts in Washington from warning of the growing possibility of war, however.
But Kinninmont said all-out war between the two regional powers is unlikely.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran both have always wanted to avoid direct conflict, and I think that will continue, basically because they can’t afford it,” Kinninmont said.
For now, the Lebanese government is likely to bear the brunt of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s jostling. Wielding its financial influence, Saudi Arabia may pressure the Lebanese government to isolate Hezbollah and thus shrink Iran’s influence in the country, some analysts have suggested.
This new element of political dysfunction is sure to challenge the Lebanese government, but it won’t be all that shocking to the beleaguered country, said Kinninmont.
“It is quite used to having protracted political crises, and people just get on with life,” Kinninmont said. “Even if they take months to negotiate who the new prime minister is, people can just live with that.”