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Showdown over Lebanon

Saudi Arabia’s power play needs to start at home

Showdown over Lebanon

Prince Mohammed(Balkis Press/Sipa USA via AP)

Never mind that Lebanon is half the size of New Jersey, its national melodrama is not to be missed.

Scene 1—lunch in Beirut, Friday, Nov. 3: Prime Minister Saad Hariri is hosting the French cultural minister, Françoise Nyssen. Mid-conversation, Hariri takes a phone call, excuses himself, and disappears.

His whereabouts remained unknown for hours, but Hariri left lunch for the airport, then turned up on television, in Saudi Arabia, to resign. In the surprise address, the 47-year-old head of state said he feared an assassination plot and accused Iran of meddling in the region, causing “devastation and chaos.”

Scene 2—evening at the Ritz-Carlton in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saturday, Nov. 4: Without warning, authorities clear guests, turning the luxury hotel into a staging ground for a purge of top royals—in all, more than 200 of Saudi Arabia’s elite detained inside the hotel and elsewhere on orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He charged them in a grand corruption scheme amounting to more than $100 billion. Yes, billion.

Over the coming days, photos on social media showed the detained moguls bedding down on sofas and floor pillows beneath Ritz chandeliers, their assets seized and bank accounts frozen: money in the bank, power consolidated around the 32-year-old crown prince.

Scene 3—Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, Monday, Nov. 6: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at the invitation of the crown prince. The Saudis give Abbas a warning: no more cooperation with Tehran.

And so you have in four days’ time dramatic events, perhaps the start of a climactic act in the simmering Arab-Iranian confrontation, the long-felt tension in the Middle East.

Prince Mohammed may want to turn a new leaf, but he is going about it the old-fashioned way, through intimidation.

Prodded by recent Iranian provocations via its militias in Iraq, its armies in Syria, its rebels in Yemen, and its terror surrogates in Lebanon and Gaza, Saudi Arabia wants its own on lock—like the Riyadh-born Hariri and the riyal-dependent Abbas.

Beyond the historic religious feud pitting Saudi Arabia’s Sunni royals against the Shia ayatollahs of Iran is a blatant play for political dominance. Prince Mohammed may want to turn a new leaf, but he is going about it the old-fashioned way, through intimidation.

Arguably, this run-up began in May, when President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One took a historic flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv during his first foreign trip as commander-in-chief. No American president had arrived in Israel via the Arab state, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel. That, too, is changing. Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot announced in November Israel for the first time will share intelligence with the Saudis as part of “a major regional plan to stop the Iranian threat.”

Trump has shifted U.S. policy from negotiating with Tehran, as the Obama administration did, to isolating it. But for the moment, the United States is the backseat partner in a drama directed by the Saudis and Israelis, thanks in no small part to years of Obama negligence in the region. The current president has had his stumbles, most recently agreeing to “deconfliction” lines in Syria with Russia that could mean leaving Assad in power and Iran at the broker’s table.

Prince Mohammed says he wants to return Saudi Arabia to “a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” This is good news. But the Saudi royals have never obliged Christians and Jews, or even non-Sunni Muslims in their own country. His moves may suggest the start of a new day—or a way out for a war-exhausted, oil-depleted regime.

The United States falters when it sidles to the emergent strong man. Prince Mohammed, to be believed, must take concrete steps toward religious liberty, steps to roll back his country’s propagating violence and oppression in the name of Islam.

Currently, his government favors only its interpretation of Sunni Islam and prohibits all non-Muslim public places of worship. It regularly imprisons and flogs individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, or even dissent. A 2014 law deems blasphemy a form of terrorism.

Changing course in the Middle East may start in tiny Lebanon, but to be believed it must take root in Saudi Arabia, and the United States should settle for no less.