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Tension mounts in Lebanon as Saudi Arabia escalates power struggle with Iran

 

(The Guardian)  In Beirut’s southern suburbs, where buildings scarred with wars of old blend with posters of the latest dead, talk of another conflict has taken hold. A fight on a scale not seen before may be brewing, say locals like Hussein Khaireddine, a barber who says he and his family in the Shia suburb of Dahiyeh have grown used to tensions over decades.

“This one’s different,” he said. “It could lead to every valley and mountain top. And if it starts, it may not stop.”

The trepidation extends beyond the city’s predominantly Shia suburbs and south Lebanon, which bore the brunt of the 2006 war with Israel, to all corners of a country that has suddenly found itself at the centre of an extraordinary regional crisis. The turmoil had been brewing for years. But it was brought to a head on 3 November, at a lunch in Beirut being hosted by prime minister Saad Hariri. Midway through the meal with the visiting French cultural minister, Françoise Nyssen, Hariri received a call and his demeanour changed. He excused himself and left for the airport, without his aides.

Within hours Hariri, by then in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, had resigned his position, concluding his transition from Lebanese leader to Saudi envoy and Lebanon’s transformation from outpost to ground zero of a stunning regional escalation.

The aftermath of the hurried departure, and the heated week since, has swept across the region, linking apparently disparate events which, in reality, were symptoms of political undercurrents that had been coursing through the Middle East for generations, and which have now burst to the surface.

The fall of Kurdish-held Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the Iraqi government, backed by Iran’s most prominent general, in October, starvation among the population of war-torn Yemen, a ballistic missile over Riyadh, and the apparently forced exit of the premier in Lebanon are all part of the same machinations – a great strategic power play between two regional heavyweights that has suddenly shifted from back rooms to potent realisation.

Now, more than at any point in modern history, Iran and Saudi Arabia are squared off against each other as a race to consolidate influence nears a climax from Sana’a to Beirut and the tens of thousands of miles in between.

The standoff is seeing new ground conquered, previously unimaginable alliances being mooted and the risk of a devastating clash between two foes whose calculations had long been that shadow wars through proxies were safer than facing up directly.

The shift in approach has been led from Riyadh, where a new regime determined to put Saudi Arabia on an entirely different footing domestically, is also trying to overhaul how the kingdom projects itself regionally – and globally.

The ambitious, unusually powerful, crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been given a mandate by his father, King Salman, to take on what the kingdom and its allies in the United Arab Emirates see as an Iranian takeover of essential corners of the Sunni Arab world.

His role on the home front, meanwhile, appears to have few bounds. Cultural reforms, economic rehabilitation, overturning traditional forms of governance, and a corruption purge that has dragged in previously immune royal billionaires, have left Saudi society reeling.

Six months into his job, Prince Mohammed, and the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, believe that the time has come to muscle up to Iran. Both insist that Iran’s arc of influence has conquered Baghdad, Damascus, Gaza and Lebanon, and is making inroads into Yemen and Manama, with the city states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also within reach.

As Hariri settled back into Riyadh, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas – whose administration last month reconciled with Hamas, which has received support from Iran – was also summonsed to Riyadh to meet King Salman.

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