In a televised address from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced he was resigning from the office he has held since December 2016. In his surprise announcement, the prominent Sunni leader cited his fear of assassination — his father, Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 — and expressed concern over growing Iranian interference in Lebanon and other Arab countries.
By nature of its precariously balanced confessional government structure and weak institutions, Lebanon struggles between the pressure of stronger states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Al-Hariri's penchant for compromise helped Lebanon pass some critical pieces of legislation after years of stagnant and slow policymaking, hampered in part by the Syrian conflict next door. Now, because al-Hariri's resignation prompts the search for an interim prime minister to be appointed by the president and eventually a new government of ministers, Lebanon's government is entering a new period of stagnation in which it will be difficult to pass oil and gas legislation, necessary budget decisions and more.
Al-Hariri sacrificed some of his own political capital among Lebanon's Sunni community to compromise with Hezbollah-linked politicians. The Saudi Arabian government, to which al-Hariri's family has deep political and economic ties, also reacted negatively. Riyadh did not seem to find al-Hariri a strong enough counterweight to Iranian-backed politicians in Beirut. But al-Hariri's recent trips to Saudi Arabia and his positive meetings with vocally anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran officials like Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister of State Thamer al-Sabhan showed a shift in al-Hariri's relationship with Riyadh that his resignation and public criticism of Iran underscores.
Recently, the pace of Saudi Arabian officials' visits to Lebanon has increased, indicating Riyadh's renewed interest in countering Iran's reach in Lebanon. Also, as the Syrian conflict has reached a stage in which Iran and its allies appear to have secured their footholds in the country, Lebanese politics has grown increasingly strained, as Hezbollah- and Iran-linked politicians push for normalizing ties with Damascus and Sunni and other politicians resist. Saudi Arabia wants to maintain and increase its own influence in Beirut. If Lebanon normalizes its ties with Damascus, Saudi Arabia will see this move as a victory for Iran.