Middle East Experts Discuss the Future of Lebanon

Experts hone in on the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Lebanon and the ramifications of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s withdrawn resignation

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Washington, DC – November 29, 2017 – Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on US policy and developments in the Arab region, held an event at the National Press Club titled “What’s Next for Lebanon?” Speakers were Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, Joseph Bahout of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Joe Macaron of ACW. They discussed recent events in Saudi Arabia and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on November 4, their implications for Lebanon’s domestic affairs, and the potent influence of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanese politics and the region.

Joe Macaron said the relationship between the Hariri family and the Saudis is central to the crisis, and the prime minister now has to balance his leadership in Lebanon with his relations with Riyadh. The Lebanese political system, though flawed, will manage these political tensions and “has an acrobatic way of always finding new formulas that please everyone and not please anyone at the same time,” he remarked. US and Iranian influence in Lebanon has been increasing since 2014, and the winding down of the Syrian war reemphasizes the need for a stable Lebanon. “The big question is what will happen next door in Syria,” Macaron concluded.

Joseph Bahout characterized Hariri’s resignation as “a cataclysmic day in Lebanon” and a first episode in the context of the “collision course between Iran and Saudi Arabia” in the region. Although the developments seem to have strengthened Hariri’s relationship with the “Sunni street,” this could be a temporary situation with the upcoming May 2018 elections. “We are seeing a reshuffling of alliances in Lebanon,” he noted, but, “What is the Saudi endgame?” Bahout said that the essential issue in this crisis is not Yemen but Hariri’s negotiations with Hezbollah. With a staunchly anti-Iranian Trump Administration in place, he said, “Will the Saudi leadership use this golden opportunity to try and topple the equilibrium in the region?

Paul Salem said that the episode of Hariri’s resignation was a Saudi—and not a Lebanese—one; the situation is “not about Saad Hariri, it’s not so much about Lebanon. It’s about the future of the missile threat in Yemen” because, he argued, “this is an existential thing for Saudi Arabia.” The Saudis also want Hezbollah to cease its military engagement in Yemen and its political media campaign against the kingdom, Salem said. “US policymakers [in the Defense and State Departments] do look at Lebanon as having pretty considerable strategic importance as a space on the eastern Mediterranean,” he added.

A complete videorecording of the event is available.