By any standard imaginable, Lebanese (ex-)Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunday interview on the television station he owns – Future TV – was positively cringe-inducing. Speaking to journalist Paula Yacoubian, Hariri sought to dispel accusations made from the highest levels of the government he once headed – including his own Sunni allies – that he was being held captive by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The interview came following his shock resignation statement delivered on Nov. 4, which thrust Lebanon into a new political crisis. Hariri's statement came as a shock even to his closest political advisers and allies and included a laundry list of Saudi allegations against Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, Riyadh’s main political adversaries.
Hezbollah and much of the Lebanese government have blasted the Saudis for forcing Hariri to read the statement accusing them and Iran of “sowing strife” in the Arab world.
Hariri's statement drew mockery from Lebanese observers who noted that his Arabic more resembled a Saudi style of the language, which is not how he normally speaks, rather than a Lebanese style. And the posters of him that have appeared across Beirut with the slogan “We are with you” look less like statements of mass support than solidarity with a political hostage.
“Iran has a strong desire to destroy the Arab world,” he said in the resignation speech aired on Al Arabiya television. He also warned that “the evil that Iran sends to the region will eventually backfire on Tehran” and that Lebanon would inevitably “cut off the hands that wickedly extend into it.”
Prior to Sunday's interview, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun – a Maronite Christian allied with Shia Muslim Hezbollah – warned that the interview would likewise reflect a man under duress and an attempt by his captors to create "doubt and confusion, and we cannot take it as true or to consider them stances made by Hariri's own free will."
Appearing nervous, fatigued and disconsolate, Hariri redoubled his accusations that Hezbollah was doing Iran's bidding in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen – where “Saudis are dying” – while insisting that he was “completely free” to come and go as he pleased. Indeed, he said as he choked back tears, he planned to return to Lebanon “very soon” to formally submit his resignation to Aoun. If he planned to revoke the resignation, he added, he hoped that the international community would understand his motives and treat Lebanon with respect.
Throughout the interview, Hariri nervously sipped from his glass of water. At one point, Yacoubian even offered the parched leader her own glass. At one point while speaking, Hariri appeared distracted and fearful as a man standing behind his interviewer appeared in the frame with a note in his hand. Whether he was a member of Hariri's entourage or a Saudi captor attempting to control the politician remains a matter of speculation.
The interview highlights what many feel has been a naked attempt by the Saudi Kingdom – and king-in-waiting Mohammed bin Salman, in particular – to dictate the course of Lebanon's internal affairs by punishing Hariri in an attempt to curtail the power of Hezbollah, which is well-represented in Lebanon's parliament and on the ministerial level, in pursuit of an ongoing proxy war with Iran.
Hezbollah's militia, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, has earned the reputation for being the most capable and battle-hardened non-state military actor in the entire world, with 20,000 full-time and highly trained fighters, 25,000 reservists and well over 100,000 missiles at its disposal. The Shia group, which earned fame and admiration worldwide for its handy defeat of an Israeli invasion in 2006 and its leading role in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria, is also known for its discipline and high morale.
In contrast, Western intelligence agencies such as Germany's BND and analysts claim that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, is an impulsive interventionist who tends to stir up whirlwind-like predicaments for the kingdom with little regard for the consequences.
“The impulsivity of MBS has been a consistent theme — from the war in Yemen to the wave of arrests of constructive critics, royals and senior officials accused of corruption,” wrote Jamal Khashoggi for The Washington Post. A journalist and close associate of recently-jailed mega-billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Khashoggi fled the kingdom in September citing “unbearable repression” under de facto ruler MBS.
“The severity of Saudi Arabia’s action against Lebanon mirrors the blockade of Qatar in June — abrupt, with no room for negotiation,” he continued. “MBS’s rash actions are deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf states and the region as a whole.”
However, Saudi-controlled news outlets are already saying that the international community, rather than casting a suspicious gaze on the kingdom, should instead be “more concerned with guaranteeing (Hariri's) protection when he eventually returns to Lebanon and confronts his government with the incriminating evidence against Hezbollah,” as Arab News editor Faisal J. Abbas wrote Monday.