Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2017 — 15 Nov 2017)

The growing rift between Iran and its growing sphere of influence, on the one hand, and the Saudi-led so-called Sunni axis, on the other, escalated further this quarter, with unresolved tensions over the previous quarter’s Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, which had repercussions as far away as Lebanon. As in previous quarters, the Saudi-Qatari conflict marginalized and divided the Palestinians and even threatened to upend the faltering U.S. peace initiative and the Palestinian reconciliation process.

Despite continued mediation efforts, the boycott persisted throughout the quarter. In mid-8/2017, after a mbr. of the Qatari ruling family, Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani, met with Saudi crown prince Mohammad, the Saudi govt. announced it would make a partial exception to the boycott and allow Qatari citizens to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. However, as al-Thani was part of a branch of the ruling family that had been ousted in a 1972 coup attempt, the Qatari establishment appeared to interpret the concession as a threat. Days later, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry announced (8/24) that the emirate was reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. The Qatari amb. returned to Tehran soon after the announcement, ending the diplomatic impasse that had resulted from Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shi‘ite religious figure in 1/2016 (see JPS 45 [3]).

By mid-9/2017, there were signs that the Qataris were interested in rolling back the tension. Two days after U.S. pres. Trump offered (9/7) to mediate in the crisis, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani called (9/9) Prince Mohammad and expressed the desire to see the dispute between the 2 countries resolved, in a gesture that marked the first high-level direct contact between the 2 sides since the boycott went into effect on 6/5. However, any gains made by the call were lost by the end of the day. The Saudi Press Agency initially reported that Mohammad “welcomed” the emir’s sentiment. But after the state-run Qatar News Agency reported that the 2 men stressed the need to resolve the crisis by way of a face-to-face “dialogue to ensure the unity and stability” of the Gulf states, the Saudi position changed. An official at the Saudi Foreign Ministry accused (9/9) the Qataris of misrepresenting Prince Mohammad’s position. “This proves that the authority in Qatar is not serious . . . and continues its previous policies,” the official said. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declares that any dialogue or communication with the authority in Qatar shall be suspended until a clear statement explaining its position is made in public.”

As the boycott entered its fifth mo., 3 developments on 11/4 significantly ratcheted up tensions across the region. First, Crown Prince Mohammad was appointed by his father, Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz, to lead a new Supreme Anti-Corruption Comm., which resulted in the detention of more than 200 mbrs. of the royal family, top officials, leading business figures, and other potential rivals in a campaign that commentators described as a major effort to consolidate the crown prince’s own power base. Second, Houthi fighters in Yemen fired a missile at Riyadh’s international airport, and although Saudi forces intercepted the missile before it could cause any damage or injuries, they launched a series of air strikes on Sanaa, causing unverified damage and injuries. “We see the [missile] as an act of war,” Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir explained (11/6), accusing both Iran and Hezbollah of supporting the attack. “Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.” Third, in a surprise move, Lebanese PM Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh, saying he was afraid for his life and accusing Iran of meddling in Lebanon. “When I took office, I promised you that I would seek to unite the Lebanese and end political division . . . but I have been unable to do so. Despite my efforts, Iran continues to abuse Lebanon,” Hariri said, pointing to the growing influence of Hezbollah.

Hariri’s resignation sent shockwaves across the region. As the announcement was made in the Saudi capital and it aired on a Saudi television network, it sparked a wave of speculation about the possibility of Saudi coercion. After Lebanon’s pres. Michel Aoun initially requested (11/4) that Hariri stay on until a replacement could be found, his aides said (11/5) that the pres. would not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returned to Beirut to explain his reasons in person. Hezbollah secy.-gen. Hasan Nasrallah went further, describing (11/4) the speculation over Saudi coercion as “legitimate” and suggesting that Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, might have been caught up in the so-called anticorruption crackdown. One Iranian spokesperson denied (11/4) Hariri’s accusations as “unreal and baseless” and another echoed (11/4) Nasrallah: “Hariri’s resignation was done in coordination with Trump and Mohammad bin Salman to foment tension in Lebanon and the region.”

Both the Palestinians and Israelis were quickly embroiled in the evolving crisis. Israeli PM Netanyahu, a de facto Saudi ally against Iran, said (11/4) that Hariri’s resignation was a “wake-up call” to the international community to take action against Iran, “which is turning Syria into a second Lebanon.” According to a report on Israel’s Channel 10, Israel’s Foreign Ministry instructed (11/5) its ambassadors around the world to lobby their host govts. in favor of the Saudi position. “[Recent events] should cause [the world] to increase the pressure on Iran and Hezbollah on a range of issues, from ballistic missile production to its efforts at regional subversion,” the memo reportedly stated.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah also toed the Saudi line. Days after Hariri’s resignation, PA pres. Abbas flew to Riyadh and met with both King Salman (11/7) and Prince Mohammad (11/8). “The Palestinian leadership, as well as the Palestinian people, stand alongside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the face of attacks,” he said (11/8). King Salman reaffirmed (11/7) his support for the Palestinian cause and his commitment to do “all that is required to bring about the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” However, Abbas’s trip to Riyadh drew comparisons to Hariri’s predicament, prompting speculation about Saudi intentions for the aging Palestinian leader. A senior White House official lent credence to the rumors, saying that Abbas was told to either “accept Trump’s peace plan or quit,” according to an 11/12 report on Israel’s Channel 10. PLO Executive Comm. mbr. Majdalani rejected the report, calling the alleged ultimatum “fabricated, false, and untrue,” but his denial did nothing to quash the speculation that Abbas would be the next Arab leader pushed aside in the Saudi campaign for regional dominance.

Through the end of the quarter, Hariri’s predicament, and with it the future of Lebanon and the broader conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in flux. “Everyone, I am just fine,” Hariri tweeted (11/14). “Inshallah, I will return in 2 days.”It was still unclear, however, what the Saudi intentions were for Lebanon, how Hezbollah and Iran might respond, or whether Hariri would follow through on his resignation. By the end of the quarter on 11/15, Hariri had still not returned to Lebanon and was invited by the French pres., Emmanuel Macron, to come to France.