After a two week-odyssey, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut on Nov. 21. The next day, after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, al-Hariri suspended his resignation, which he had announced in a surprise address from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4. As this short, strange chapter in Lebanese politics ends, hypotheses abound about just what is going on in Beirut. What follows are the questions Stratfor is asking.
Now that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has suspended his resignation, is Lebanon's political drama over?
No way. Saudi Arabia's efforts to gain clout in Lebanon are increasing as it looks for ways to challenge Iran's political, economic and military influence across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Lebanese militant group Hezbollah's capabilities, especially in Syria and Yemen, and ultimately will always view Lebanon as part of Iran's strategic reach. For decades, Saudi Arabia has sought to exert its influence over the diverse country, but the Shiite population, Hezbollah's presence and Iran's ability to act through the group have been enduring challenges. Saudi Arabia will continue to seek support, especially from the United States, for its escalating anti-Iran campaign, in which Lebanon will remain a key focus.
How is the rest of the region responding?
Over the past two weeks, al-Hariri spent most of his time in Saudi Arabia, but he also made brief visits to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, France, Egypt and Cyprus, demonstrating just how widely Lebanon's fate matters. Lebanon's stability is important to the Middle East as a whole as well as to countries outside the region, particularly the United States and France. Lebanon hosts over a million Syrian refugees, is a battleground against the Islamic State, is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious interests, and is the origin of a diaspora whose members are active across the globe in politics, finance and business. Though stagnation is status quo for the Lebanese government, drawn out political dramas like the one that played out over the last two weeks are especially detrimental to the country's ability to function.
What does the situation mean for Lebanese political stability?
As long as al-Hariri hasn't left his post, the Cabinet assembled around him can continue to function. If al-Hariri's resignation is accepted and he leaves power, however, the government will be dissolved and a new Cabinet can't be assembled until a new prime minister is chosen. Lebanon's government wants to bounce back from these weeks of turmoil as quickly as possible and to continue with business as usual despite the uncertainty surrounding al-Hariri. Immediately after al-Hariri resigned, the energy minister even urged businesses competing in the bidding process for oil and natural gas licenses to stick to the strict timeline that had been set, despite the political uncertainty. Those who want al-Hariri to stay in his post, including Hezbollah, which views him as an agent of compromise, will likely negotiate carefully to help keep him in place.
What happens to al-Hariri now?
Today al-Hariri said he's suspending his resignation, though not completely canceling it. In the coming days, the prime minister will likely meet with political groups and his Cabinet to assess the path forward. It's not immediately clear whether he intends to actually resign or whether he will permanently cancel his resignation. It's possible that over the last two weeks, al-Hariri was counseled to reconsider the resignation, whether by Saudi Arabia or by France — two powers with political influence over the prime minister. There are other Sunni leaders in the wings that could hypothetically take the reins if al-Hariri leaves his post, including his brother, Bahaa al-Hariri. But because Lebanese law requires the prime minister to be Sunni and selected by the parliament and the president, choosing the right person is an involved process that requires extensive consensus building, which can take months and even years in Lebanon. Though the position of prime minister in Lebanon is a powerful one, it's also one that invites negative attention, political attacks, and security threats — of which al-Hariri alluded during his resignation he has been a victim. For now, it looks like al-Hariri will remain prime minister for the foreseeable future, especially considering that his popularity has increased in the last two weeks and finding a replacement would be difficult.
Were Saudi leaders manipulating al-Hariri? Are they still manipulating him?
There are indications that al-Hariri was acting at Saudi Arabia's behest when he announced his resignation and when he firmly aligned with Saudi statements against Iran in recent weeks. Saudi Arabia has been dismayed by the extent to which al-Hariri compromised with Hezbollah-linked politicians during his tenure as prime minister, even though such compromise is necessary for any Lebanese prime minister wanting to accomplish anything in the country's political system. What's unclear is the extent to which Saudi Arabia was involved in nudging him to suspend his resignation. It's possible that Saudi Arabia thought it would incur too much backlash across the Middle East for being viewed as a manipulator. It's also possible that Saudi Arabia realizes al-Hariri can still be valuable in challenging Iranian influence in Lebanon and the region by remaining prime minister and adopting a more hardline policy against the group. The difficulty of installing a replacement was likely made clear as well: Though not ideal, al-Hariri is Saudi Arabia's best option to lead Lebanon right now.
How will Hezbollah react?
Hezbollah's reach in Lebanon is long. But despite the group's ability to influence the country's politics, economy and security, the structure of the Lebanese government is such that Hezbollah needs other interest groups, including Sunnis, Christians and Druze to be on board, too. If al-Hariri stays in his post, Hezbollah knows it has a prime minister who has been willing to compromise with them since he rose to the position. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah specifically called for al-Hariri to return to his post in the midst of the political crisis and refused to accept the resignation. That might change if al-Hariri's suspended resignation and period of consultations with Saudi Arabia causes him to challenge Hezbollah in a way he hasn't before.