Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon on Monday of declaring war against it due to “aggression” against the Kingdom by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The statement by Saudi officials made clear that the Lebanese will “be dealt with” as an aggressive government.
The “aggression” being referred to was the recent missile launched at the King Khalid International Airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh by Houthi militants in Yemen. The missile was intercepted by Patriot anti-missile batteries stationed near the city. On the day of the attack, there was no immediate response from Saudi officials as to who was behind the launch. Now the Saudi’s have taken the position that Hezbollah was the group that made the attack possible. Since Hezbollah is a powerful party within the Lebanese government, from Riyadh’s perspective, it is Lebanon that is to blame.
This series of events is the result of a complex nexus of state relations based on the Shiite Sunni divide, one of, if not the primary movers in Middle East power dynamics.
To give some context, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of states against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been in control of Yemen since toppling the country's internationally recognized government in 2015. Like Syria, Yemen has become a battleground for proxy wars between rival Shiite and Sunni states. Just as the Alawite Asad regime in Syria aligned with Iran, and by extension the whole Shiite axis has been pitted against Sunni militant groups in the ongoing civil war, so too, Yemen’s Houthi movement, largely a Shia lead group, is waging war against a Sunni coalition lead by the Saudi’s. This is why missiles are being launched from Yemen in the direction of Riyadh. It is also why Saudi leadership has blamed Hezbollah and the state in whose government it sits, Lebanon.
In tandem with the war cries, major political upheaval has occurred in Lebanon that only serves to demonstrate the leverage Saudi Arabia has in this whole situation. On the same day that the Saudi threats were delivered, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a press conference in Riyadh. Hariri, a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen, headed Lebanon's Future party.
Hariri’s stated reason for resigning was fear “for his life” in the Hezbollah dominated country. Indeed, power plays within Lebanon between the militant group and its opponents, or in other words, the pro-Iran and pro-Saudi camps, have become the characterizing feature in Lebanese politics, and have long threatened to plunge the country into internal conflict. That threat has just gotten a lot more severe.
Hariri spent a good portion of his speech blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for "sowing strife" in the region. With Hariri’s departure, Lebanon’s governmental coalition is also in danger of falling apart.
Some have speculated that Hariri was forced in one way or another by the Saudi’s to resign, perhaps via leverage on his family’s Saudi based construction company. Whether or not this is true, the fact of the matter is, that an attack on Saudi Arabia has in some way triggered a major destabilizing event within a country that forms an important part of the Shiite fellowship in the region.
Of course, in light of the above background, it should be understood that a Saudi threat on Hezbollah and Lebanon is also, in a very powerful way, a threat to Iran. The Saudis have already shown that they are willing to invest militarily in their conflict with the region's Shiite camp, as it has been in Yemen for nearly three years.
It remains to be seen what real-world consequences will emerge from these developments and if the Iran-Saudi proxy war will expand as a result.