May 9, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 967

With Increase Of Sunni-Shi'ite Tension In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia Renews Involvement In Country

May 9, 2013 | By E. B. Picali
Saudi Arabia, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 967


On March 23, 2013, as the Sunni-Shi'ite struggle in Lebanon reached a peak, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his resignation and brought down the Hizbullah-dominated government that had been formed in June 2011 under the sponsorship of this organization. Two weeks later, on April 6, 2013, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman assigned the task of forming a new government to Tammam Salam, an MP from the Al-Mustaqbal faction, which heads the March 14 Forces. This new government, yet to be established, is to serve until elections are held this June. The appointment of Tammam Salam had the overwhelming support of 124 out of 128 parliament members, including the MPs from the Hizbullah–headed March 8 Forces (the remaining four MPs abstained).

This surprising consensus was achieved largely thanks to the mediation of Saudi Arabia, which has renewed its involvement in Lebanon. Acting with the approval of Iran and perhaps also of Syria, this country took steps to calm the situation in Lebanon while remaining open to all sides, including the March 8 Forces. Its intervention was apparently motivated by a joint Saudi-Iranian desire to prevent Lebanon from sliding into Sunni-Shi'ite war and thus creating a new hotspot of conflict in the region, in addition to Syria.

The Saudi intervention sheds light on the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for influence over Lebanon's Sunni sector and for hegemony in the Arab world at large. It also reflects Saudi Arabia's fear that sectarian tensions in Lebanon might exacerbate Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in the kingdom itself and in other Gulf states, especially Bahrain.

This report reviews the moves that preceded the political developments in Lebanon, focusing on Saudi Arabia's return to the Lebanese arena and the reasons that motivated it, as well as Iran's part in these moves.

Lebanon's new prime minister, Tammam Salam (image:

Renewed Saudi Involvement In Lebanon, Characterized By Openness To All Sides

Salam's appointment was preceded by extensive Saudi activity – carried out in Lebanon and in Saudi Arabia itself – as well as mediation efforts by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, which ultimately yielded an understanding between the rival sides (the March 14 Forces, lead by the Al-Mustaqbal faction, and the March 8 Forces, led by Hizbullah). The Saudi involvement was achieved through visits by Lebanese delegations and figures in the kingdom,[1] including Tammam Salam himself, who visited Riyadh the day before his appointment and reportedly met with the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan.[2] In addition, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, 'Ali 'Awad 'Asiri, held meetings with Lebanese President Suleiman and Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri.[3] Following Salam's appointment, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz sent him a cable of congratulations, in which he noted, inter alia, the kingdom's willingness "to support any measure contributing to Lebanon's stability and growth."[4] The Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily, associated with the March 8 Forces, claimed that Salam's appointment had been a Saudi decision.[5] The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon denied this, but confirmed that Saudi Arabia had assisted the Lebanese sides in reaching an agreement over the identity of the new prime minister.[6]

Some claim that Saudi Arabia even had a hand in Mikati's resignation. Al-Akhbar columnist Ghassan Sa'ud cited sources close to Christian leader Michel 'Aoun, chairman of the Free Patriotic Movement, as saying: "['Aoun] believes that Mikati's resignation was the result of an agreement between [Nabih] Beri, [Michel] Suleiman, [Najib] Mikati and [Walid] Jumblatt, made with Hizbullah's knowledge and on Saudi orders."[7] Another report in this daily claimed that Mikati had been willing to resign providing that Saudi Arabia would support his reappointment.[8]

The Saudi activity clearly indicates this country's return to the Lebanese arena following a long absence.[9] However, surprisingly and unlike in the past, the Saudi involvement is now characterized by openness towards all sides in Lebanon, including Hizbullah. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that on April 11, 2013, about a week after Salam's appointment, Saudi ambassador in Lebanon 'Ali 'Asiri gave an interview to Hizbullah's TV channel, Al-Manar – a move that was seen as unusual considering the breach in relations between the sides in the past few years. In the interview, 'Asiri said: "The kingdom is aligned with all the political sides [in Lebanon], and its policy is to form ties with all of them, without exception."[10]

Saudi Arabia's openness towards Hizbullah was also reflected in a surprising stance taken by 'Asiri regarding Hizbullah's weapons – an issue that has been and remains a bone of contention between the March 14 Forces and the March 8 Forces in the recent years, with the former regarding these weapons as illegitimate and calling to disarm Hizbullah. In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, the Saudi ambassador refrained from expressing any position on this issue, saying that it is "a domestic Lebanese matter."[11] Yet another expression of the new Saudi stance towards Hizbullah was a series of meetings 'Asiri held with March 8 Forces officials and with figures close to this political stream, including: ministers from 'Aoun's party; General Security chief 'Abbas Ibrahim, known as a Hizbullah sympathizer; Ibrahim's predecessor, Jamil Al-Sayyed, who was arrested in the past on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri,[12] and a minister from the Amal party who met with Al-'Asiri as a representative of Beri and Hizbullah.[13]

The Al-Safir daily cited Arab diplomatic sources as saying that "Saudi Arabia is not in a conflict with Hizbullah or with Iran, which is behind [this organization]," and that "Saudi Arabia has decided to renew its contacts with Hizbullah, and has [also] advised the two former Lebanese prime ministers [from the Al-Mustaqbal faction], Sa'd Al-Hariri and Fuad Al-Siniora, to act towards renewing the contacts with Hizbullah as a preliminary step towards a reconciliation between the two sides."[14] Al-Safir added that "direct contacts are expected to take place soon [between Saudi Arabia] and Hizbullah."[15] Ambassador 'Asiri told this daily in an interview that he has long been in contact with Hizbullah, and that no breach in relations exists between the two sides."[16]

It should be mentioned that the breach in relations, which lasted about two years, had numerous reasons, including Rafiq Al-Hariri's murder, the issue of Hizbullah's arms, and this organization's military involvement in Syria. Hence, the current rapprochement, and the Saudi statement that Hizbullah's weapons are an internal Lebanese affair, constitute a significant about face in this country's position and an interesting aspect of its renewed involvement in Lebanon.

Saudi ambassador to Lebanon 'Ali 'Awad 'Asiri

Iranian Consent To Saudi Involvement In Lebanon

Hizbullah's support of Tammam Salam,[17] who, as mentioned, was appointed with Saudi Arabia's direct involvement, and this organization's willingness to respond to Saudi Arabia's overtures (albeit indirectly, for now), raise the possibility that Iran may have been involved in these moves and perhaps even reached understandings regarding Lebanon with Saudi Arabia. Possible evidence of this is a visit paid by the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, to Salam on April 7, 2013, the day after his appointment as prime minister. During the meeting, the ambassador gave Salam a letter from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wishing him luck. After the visit, Roknabadi said that his country "supports Lebanon, its stability and security, and all Lebanese."[18] The daily Al-Akhbar cited Iranian circles as saying that their country does not object to Saudi involvement in Lebanon.[19] Furthermore, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, told Al-Safir that there was international consensus, which included Saudi Arabia and Iran, that the Mikati government had to be replaced.[20] The Lebanese daily Al-Diyar reported on April 11, 2013 that a secret meeting had taken place between the Saudi and Iranian ambassadors to Lebanon, attended by Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Na'im Qassem, which had led to the decision by both sides to ease the process of establishing the new government.[21]

Joint Saudi-Iranian Interests: A Stable Lebanon and The Easing Of Regional Tensions

Saudi Arabia's renewed involvement in Lebanon has several aims, including maintaining Lebanon's stability and preventing sectarian war there, and thus forestalling an escalation in regional tension that might ensue if another hotspot of conflict is created in addition to Syria.

In the two months prior to the resignation of Mikati and his government, there was a significant escalation in tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Lebanon, so much so that some feared sectarian war. This tension had several causes, including the marginalization of the Sunni Al-Mustaqbal stream after the Mikati government was established in June 2011 by the March 8 Forces, led by the Shi'ite Hizbullah, as well as Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria.[22] Apparently, it is was this fear of sectarian war in Lebanon that motivated Saudi Arabia to play a central role in mediating among the various political forces in the country, which eventually led to the consensus over Salam's appointment. Concurrently, it seems that Hizbullah and its patron Iran also had an interest to prevent sectarian war, leading them to cooperate with the Saudi efforts. Lebanese analysts estimated that Iran was involved in these moves, but also cautioned that one must not assume comprehensive understandings between Saudi Arabia and Iran beyond their joint desire to preserve Lebanon's stability. Lebanese writer 'Abd Al-Wahhab Badrakhan claimed that this was "coexistence between the major powers [namely Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon]" who both benefit from stability.[23] George Sam'an, another Lebanese writer, stressed that there were no regional-level understandings, just a desire by both sides (Saudi Arabia and Iran) to avoid being dragged into conflict.[24]

In addition, Saudi Arabia also fears that a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Lebanon could spread to the entire region and especially to the Gulf states, or at the very least exacerbate existing tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites in those countries – especially in Bahrain, which has a majority Shi'ite population, and in Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shi'ite minority. More specifically, it seems that Saudi Arabia fears that a Sunni Lebanese threat to Hizbullah in Lebanon could cause it to actively export the sectarian crisis to the Gulf and destabilize the regimes there. Saudi Arabia also alluded to Qatar's and Turkey's role in exacerbating the sectarian tensions. On April 13, 2013, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir wrote, citing Arab diplomats, that "Saudi Arabia is very angry at the role played by Qatar and Turkey in the region... It objects to the sectarian struggles [they are igniting], because these could negatively affect the kingdom and its stability, considering that it has a large Shi'ite population – the largest population [of Shi'ites] in the Arab world after the one in Iraq. [Moreover], the Shi'ites in Bahrain and Iraq constitute the overwhelming majority [of the population]. In addition, [Saudi Arabia is concerned about] the situation in Yemen and the threat of Iran as a large regional military power."[25]

Salam's Appointment: Strengthening The Moderate Sunni Stream In Light Of Hizbullah's Political Weakness

It should be stressed that not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the Lebanese sides themselves – chiefly Hizbullah and the Al-Mustaqbal stream – have a supreme interest in preventing Lebanon from sliding into a sectarian war that would not serve either of them. In addition, each side also has its own unique interests that created this situation.

Hizbullah was forced to cooperate with its political rivals in the country and with Saudi Arabia, though it meant the ouster of the Mikati government, in which it was a major force.[26] This, following the considerable decline of Hizbullah's status in Lebanon due to Assad's deteriorating position in Syria and the organization's military involvement in the country. Hizbullah also has slim chances of obtaining a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections in June 2013, after Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has distanced himself from the March 8 Forces.[27] With this concession, Hizbullah hopes to reach understandings regarding the composition of future governments and its part in them. It also hopes that the reentry of the Al-Mustaqbal stream, which represents most Sunnis in the country, into the government will alleviate tensions and strengthen the moderate Sunni stream at the expense of extremist Sunni elements such as the Sidon-based Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, who challenge Hizbullah's weapons and do not fear to confront it. In fact, Hizbullah hopes that the Al-Mustaqbal stream will undertake the struggle against these extremist Salafi movements, thus sparing it the need to do so.[28]

The Al-Mustaqbal stream, which also weakened substantially over the past two years due to Sa'd Al-Hariri's absence from Lebanon and the rise of Salafi elements, has now returned to the forefront of the political stage, now that its representative Tammam Salam is tasked with establishing the new government. Thus, Al-Mustaqbal's demand that the management of the parliamentary elections be taken out of the Mikati government's hands has been met. In addition, Salam's appointment to prime minister has given many Lebanese Sunnis the feeling that the country is no longer run by Shi'ites and some Christians, but that Sunnis are once again chief partners in its governing.

Thus, it seems that the Saudi involvement with Iranian consent has indeed managed to alleviate some political tensions in Lebanon between the Al-Mustaqbal stream and Hizbullah. However, it should be mentioned that this is only a temporary reprieve, because Salam has thus far been unable to establish a government due to arguments between the sides on its character and makeup. Furthermore, one of the main causes of tension between the sects in Lebanon, and especially between the Salafis and Hizbullah – namely Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria – still exits and has even gained more impact lately, since the situation in Syria has a direct influence over that in Lebanon. The escalation of battles in the Al-Qusayr area in Syria in the past two weeks between Assad's forces, which include Hizbullah, and the Syrian opposition, which is supported by Lebanese Salafis, has reignited tensions in Lebanon – so much so that Salafi sheikhs in Lebanon have issued fatwas calling for jihad against Hizbullah in Syria and for the murder of Shi'ites in Lebanon.[29]

The Saudi-Qatari Struggle For Sunni Hegemony In Lebanon

Saudi Arabia's return to the Lebanese arena can also be examined from the perspective of its struggle with Qatar for hegemony over the Sunni sector in Lebanon, and, more generally, over senior status in the Arab world. One manifestation of this struggle was the change in Al-Mustaqbal's attitude towards Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir, a prominent Lebanese extremist Salafi sheikh in Sidon and a bitter foe of Hizbullah, who, according to various reports, has Qatar's support. After expressing qualified support for Al-Asir's activities and demands, Al-Mustaqbal reversed its position and launched an all-out attack on him.[30]

It appears that the recent exchange of blows between Al-Mustaqbal and Sheikh Al-Asir, which took place just as Saudi Arabia sought to promote calm in Lebanon, reflects the tension between Saudi Arabia, which supports Al-Mustaqbal, and Qatar, which, according to reports, is behind Al-Asir's activity and apparently also behind other extremist Salafi groups in northern Lebanon.[31] Evidence of this struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar can be seen in an article published by the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, in December 2012, stating that by supporting Sheikh Al-Asir, Qatar was encouraging sectarian war, increasing the schism among the Lebanese, and endangering Lebanon's security.[32]

The Lebanese press likewise assessed that the recent tension between Al-Mustaqbal and Al-Asir reflects a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jean 'Aziz, a columnist for Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, stated in his April 9, 2013 column that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were now fighting for hegemony in Lebanon, against the backdrop of the inability of other countries in the region to do so.[33] The same day, the Al-Safir daily, which is identified with the March 8 Forces, reported that "what happened between the Al-Mustaqbal stream and Sheikh Al-Asir... is also the result of conflicting Gulf interests in the Lebanese arena, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar... While Saudi Arabia is attempting to instill calm... Qatar has other accounts [to settle].[34] In this context, it should be recalled that in the past, Qatar played the role of broker in Lebanon, with the signing of the Doha Agreement in May 2008 between the Al-Mustaqbal stream and Hizbullah, which led to the end of the political crisis in the country.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia's renewed involvement in Lebanon is significant also in terms of its inter-Arab status. This involvement builds its prestige in the Arab world versus that of Qatar, which is also working to broker between various elements and states in the region.

Does Syria Play A Part In The Deal That Led To Salam's Appointment?

Saudi Arabia's return to Lebanon was also made possible by the weakening of Syria's influence as a force in this country. Up until two years ago, before the outbreak of the war in Syria, Syria ran the Lebanon arena, representing both Saudi Arabia's and Iran's interests there. Now, when Syria is no longer capable of fulfilling this role because of its own internal crisis, Saudi Arabia is taking it on, and is showing openness towards all sides and not acting as patron of a particular side, in the desire to prevent Lebanon from sliding into sectarian war. The Al-Safir daily reported that Saudi Arabia "has again taken hold of the reins of initiative in Lebanon through the resignation of Najib Mikati and the appointment of Tammam Salam [in his stead]."[35]

Aftermath of battles in Al-Qusayr (Image:

At the same time, it might be premature to eulogize Syria's involvement in Lebanon. This was indicated by an April 21, 2013 meeting between a March 8 Forces delegation and Assad, during which Assad made statements interpreted to mean that he supports Tammam Salam's appointment. According to one of the meeting's participants, Assad said: "It's good that the national, deeply rooted [Lebanese] families are returning [to run the country]," hinting at Tammam Salam.[36] The Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that, according to some, it is significant that this meeting was held, for it was aimed at conveying the message that Syria still has influence in Lebanon.[37]

In this context, it should be noted that the Lebanese press associated with the March 14 Forces and the Arab press reported in January-February 2013 that Syria and Saudi Arabia had renewed their contact and coordination in the field of security. On January 8, Al-Safir reported on the renewing of contacts between the two countries, and assessed that the change in Saudi Arabia's attitude stemmed from its estimation that the Assad regime would not fall after all and its fear of the growing strength of extremist Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.[38] On February 4, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar reported that Saudi Arabia and Syria had opened up a channel of negotiations through Jordan.[39]

It should also be noted that, according to some assessments, the outcome of the battles between Assad's forces and the rebels in Al-Qusayr, near Lebanon's eastern border, will impact the political forces in Lebanon and Syria's influence there. Specifically, a victory by Assad will increase the political clout of the March 8 Forces. An Al-Akhbar columnist wrote on April 24, 2013: "The [Lebanese parliamentary] elections and the formation of [Salam's new] government... await the outcome of the recent developments in Al-Qusayr and their impact on Lebanon."[40] On the following day, columnist Nicolas Nassif wrote in the same daily: "What is happening in Syria, especially the coming battles in Al-Qusayr... will be a real factor in determining the power-balance in Lebanon." [41]

All this shows that the events in Syria have an impact on what is happening in Lebanon, and that, despite its precarious situation, the Syrian regime is still involved there to some extent, though less actively than before.

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] For example, a delegation on behalf of Jumblatt visited the kingdom in early April (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, April 2, 2013); and, on April 2, 2013, it was reported that two Al-Mustaqbal delegations, one of them headed by Fuad Al-Siniora, had visited Riyadh. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 2, 2013.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 5, 2013.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 4, 2013.

[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 7, 2013.

[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 5, 2013.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 20, 2013. Similar statements were made by Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, in a lecture at Harvard University in Boston. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 29, 2013.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 4, 2013.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 8, 2013. The daily also claimed that March 14 Forces leader Sa'd Al-Hariri had firmly objected to Mikati's reappointment.

[9] In January 2011, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud Al-Faisal announced that the Saudi king had "withdrawn his involvement in" all the Saudi-Syrian agreements regarding Lebanon. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 19, 2011.

[10] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 12, 2013.

[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 18, 2013.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 12, 2013.

[13] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 17, 2013.

[14] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 13, 2013.

[15] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 17, 2013.

[16] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 18, 2013.

[17] After his appointment, Salam said that a personal messenger sent by Nasrallah had congratulated him and wished him success. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 9, 2013.

[18] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 8, 2013.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 18, 2013.

[20] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 19, 2013.

[21] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), April 11, 2013.

[22] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 916, Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, January 3, 2013.

[23] Al-Hayat (London), April 11, 2013.

[24] Al-Hayat (London), April 8, 2013.

[25] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 13, 2013.

[26] According to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, a Hizbullah official described Saudi Arabia's involvement in alleviating the tension in Lebanon as "welcome" and expressed hope that it would succeed in "preserving public safety and holding back the demon of sectarian war." Al-Rai (Kuwait), April 10, 2013.

[27] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar cited associates of 'Aoun who said that Hizbullah has become convinced of its inability to form the new government after the elections. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 4, 2013.

[28] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar stated, citing associates of 'Aoun, that Beri and Hizbullah parliamentarians believe that the key to solving the problem of the extremist Salafis is strengthening former Lebanese president Sa'd Al-Hariri. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 4, 2013.

[29] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 966 Fear In Lebanon Over Possible Slide Into Sectarian War, May 9, 2013.

[30] For a long time, Al-Mustaqbal refrained from supporting Al-Asir for fear that this would strengthen him and weaken its own status among the Sunni public. But Al-Mustaqbal's stance towards Al-Asir recently underwent several reversals: Due to Al-Asir's claims that Hizbullah had set up posts in two buildings near his mosque for monitoring him, Al-Mustaqbal shifted its attitude towards him somewhat, and began to express solidarity with him. However, not long after, the stream did an about face and on March 19, 2013, Al-Mustaqbal chairman Ahmad Al-Hariri declared that Al-Asir was an extremist and a creation of Hizbullah. See also Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, March 20, 2013.

[31] On April 3, 2013, Al-Safir reported that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Al-Mustaqbal stream leader Fuad Al-Siniora had asked the Qatari Emir to stop funding Al-Asir's activity. Al-Safir, Lebanon, April 3, 2013.

[32] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), December 17, 2012.

[33] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 9, 2013.

[34] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 9, 2013.

[35] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 13, 2013.

[36] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 22, 2013.

[37] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), April 22, 2013.

[38] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 8, 2013.

[39] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 4, 2013.

[40] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 24, 2013.

[41] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 25, 2013.

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