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A proxy war that is devouring the Middle East

Lebanon is the next act in Saudi Arabia and Iran's conflict by proxy

    A poster of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in the northern city of Tripoli
    A poster of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in the northern city of Tripoli Getty Images

    Even close observers of Middle East politics were taken aback when Lebanon’s prime minister suddenly revealed over the weekend that he was stepping down, saying he feared for his life.

    Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh on Saturday and, at the time of writing on Wednesday, had still not returned to Lebanon. It led many observers to conclude that this was the newest front in Saudi Arabia’s long-running proxy war with Iran.

    I say “newest”, because these two countries have provided support, funds and in some cases weapons to opposing sides in a tranche of conflicts and disputes across the Middle East.

    Take Syria, blighted by civil war for more than six years, where Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syrian Army opposition, and Iranian support proved crucial in keeping President Bashar al-Assad’s regime alive.

    The same situation applies to the conflict raging in Yemen, where Saudi and Iranian military might is on full display – on opposite sides.

    Then there’s Qatar, a tiny oil-rich nation that was plunged into isolation when a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia abruptly cut off diplomatic relations and closed its only land border. The group listed Qatar’s close relationship with Iran as one of their reasons for the move.

    Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a powerful force and Mr Hariri’s family have extensive, well-documented links to Saudi Arabia, appears to have become the next act in the spectacle. 

    “Turmoil” is a word often used — over-used, in fact — to describe events in the Middle East, so let’s use a different one to explain what’s going on: “change”.  

    Some remarkable changes are happening in Saudi Arabia, some of which — like lifting a ban on women drivers or allowing women spectators in sports stadiums — have made headline news in the West.

    Another change is the massive anti-corruption probe that has seen the arrest of some very senior people — princes, ministers and investors among them. It has been portrayed as a reform initiative; it can easily also be called a battle for power in the Saudi kingdom. 

    Change is afoot, too, for Iran, which threw off the shackles of some crippling economic sanctions after a 2015 deal with six world powers over its nuclear programme. It has allowed the leadership in Tehran to become much more assertive: in Iraq, Syria and, it would seem, Lebanon.

    This is a story of one-upmanship in the Middle East that will define the next decade in the region and beyond.

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