Matteo Legrenzi and Fred H. Lawson
Dr. Legrenzi is an associate professor at Ca' Foscari University of Venice and author of The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf. Dr. Lawson is a professor of government at Mills College and author of Global Security Watch — Syria.
On March 2, 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) posted on its official website a scathing condemnation of the Lebanese Islamist movement the Party of God (Hezbollah), accusing it of carrying out "hostile acts" in the six GCC member-states and engaging in campaigns of "terror and incitement" in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The pronouncement was attributed to GCC Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayyani, but was widely acknowledged to have been issued at the instigation of the organization's most influential member, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Three days earlier, the Saudi-owned MBC television network in Lebanon broadcast a comedy program that lampooned Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, and depicted him as nothing but a stooge of the Islamic Republic of Iran.1 Nasrullah replied on March 1 with a vituperative public riposte, in which he charged that the Saudi government was interferring in domestic politics all across the Middle East, most notably in Lebanon.
Nasrullah's accusation came in the wake of Riyadh's decision 10 days earlier to cancel a $4 billion grant to fund the purchase of arms and equipment for the Lebanese armed forces and security services. An anonymous official in the Saudi foreign ministry told reporters that the cancellation was the direct consequence of "Lebanon's positions [on regional affairs], which are not in harmony with the brotherly ties linking [Lebanon and Saudi Arabia]," as well as Hezbollah's "political and media campaigns" against the kingdom and the party's ongoing "terrorist acts" in neighboring countries.2 Riyadh's abrupt turnaround caught the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam by surprise and left pro-Saudi actors inside Lebanon uncertain what course of action to pursue next.3
Informed observers attributed Riyadh's sudden burst of belligerence toward Hezbollah to four primary causes: Beirut's unwillingness to join other Arab capitals in blaming the Iranian authorities for a January 2016 attack on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad, the Saudi state's sharp drop in income in the wake of the collapse of global oil prices, the Lebanese authorities' refusal to release a member of the Saudi ruling family taken into custody at Beirut airport in October 2015 with two tons of amphetamines in his private aircraft, and Hezbollah's growing power in Lebanon's domestic politics.4
These developments cast a pall over Saudi-Lebanese relations, yet they fail to explain Riyadh's extraordinary step of labeling Hezbollah a threat to the security of the Gulf — such a grave danger that the kingdom severely punished the Lebanese government for its failure to curtail the organization's activities. The Saudi leadership's decision to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization can more usefully be interpreted as a response to three more immediate trends: a marked convergence of external security threats, a notable weakening of Saudi clients in the Lebanese political arena, and a resurgence of internal challenges to the Saudi regime. The conjunction of these factors compelled Riyadh to take forceful steps to undercut the party's burgeoning power and prestige as a regional actor.
THREATS FROM YEMEN, IRAN AND IRAQ
By the winter of 2015-16, Riyadh confronted a broad range of external threats to its basic security interests. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen could boast few if any successes on the battlefield. At the same time, the Islamic Republic of Iran accelerated its ballistic-missile program and pointed to Saudi Arabia as a potential target for the next generation of intermediate-range weapons. Moreover, the kingdom faced a rising danger from the northwest, as paramilitary forces that had mobilized inside Iraq to block the advance of the Islamic State (al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah) became increasingly active along the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border.
Saudi troops, joined by contingents of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Qatar, launched a major air and ground offensive in Yemen in July 2015 that quickly won control of central districts of the southern metropolis of Aden. Fierce resistance from fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Salih and the Saadah-based Supporters of God (Ansar Allah, commonly called the Huthis) prevented the expeditionary force from pushing into the adjacent provinces of Lahij, Dali and Abyan, however, and the Saudi-led campaign soon bogged down. The stalemate opened the door for radical Islamists associated with the Islamic State to enter the battle; some of them were reported to have coordinated their operations with Saudi and UAE commanders and others to have fought alongside Salih's allies.5 Tactical collaboration with Islamist radicals enabled Saudi-allied forces to capture large parts of Lahij and Abyan provinces. But rivalry between newly arrived militants and the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, now known as the Supporters of the Islamic Way of Life (Ansar al-Shariah), precipitated sporadic attacks against Saudi and UAE military personnel, as well as against the Riyadh-backed administration of President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi.6
After gaining a foothold in the south, fighters linked to the Islamic State became active in Shabwah, al-Jawf, Marib and Taizz provinces. Here they engaged in direct combat with remnants of Yemen's regular armed forces, which had backed Hadi and been expelled from Sanaa by the Supporters of God in September 2014. Troops loyal to the president managed to fend off radical Islamists and Supporters of God alike in the wastelands of Shabwah, al-Jawf and Marib, but the Huthi-Salih alliance repulsed repeated attempts by Saudi-sponsored forces to extend their control into the fertile highlands around Taizz and Ibb.7 Blocked from advancing into the central provinces, the pro-Hadi coalition found itself subjected to frequent attacks from Islamic State suicide bombers and lone-wolf assassins in the streets of Aden and al-Hawtah, the capital of Lahij province.8
Persistent in-fighting among rival formations of radical Islamists made it impossible for forces aligned with Hadi to impose orderliness even in those districts of the south where they held the upper hand. Such internecine conflict, combined with serious disagreements between Saudi and UAE commanders concerning which Islamist factions to tolerate, worked to the distinct advantage of the Islamic State, which extended its operations to areas close to the Saudi border during the winter of 2015-16.9 Attacks along the frontier by Huthis, forces loyal to Salih and radical Islamists became routine occurrences during February 2016.10
Equally important, by early 2016 the beleaguered president was forced to rely more heavily on the Southern Resistance, whose platform — calling for the restoration of a substantial degree of administrative autonomy to Yemen's southern provinces — fit uneasily with Riyadh's long-term security interests.11 The increasing leverage exercised by this conglomeration of local militias aggravated latent friction among the diverse components of the pro-Hadi bloc. Intimations that the Southern Resistance might revive the demand that had been raised by the earlier Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Junubi) for full independence elicited a blunt warning from the commander of the troops fighting the Supporters of God in Marib province that he would turn against his current allies if any move toward secession were actually undertaken.12
Indications that the Saudi-led coalition might fracture re-energized Ansar al-Shariah, whose constituent forces jockeyed with one another and with shadowy cells of Salih's supporters for control of the provincial capitals of al-Hawtah and Zinjibar (Abyan), as well as the pivotal Aden suburb of al-Mansurah.13 President Hadi attempted to restore a modicum of unity among his allies in early February 2016 by appointing two moderate Southern Movement figures to senior ministerial posts,14 but the Saudi-sponsored government's prospects nevertheless looked bleak.15
It was under these circumstances that Saudi Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud announced on December 14, 2015, that Riyadh intended to create a new alliance of Islamic countries to fight international terrorism.16 How exactly this alliance might be structured, and just which countries would constitute its member-states, remained unclear. Provisional lists of members excluded Syria, Iraq and Iran, prompting observers to remark that the grouping exhibited a pronounced anti-Shii bent. A prominent Saudi military officer nevertheless told reporters that it would be possible for Tehran to join the project, whenever the Islamic Republic could prove that it was not a sponsor of terrorist organizations.17 Lebanese officials said they had not been notified in advance that Beirut was going to be included on the roster, and the prospective alliance elicited even harsher criticism from the leadership of Hezbollah.18
Meanwhile, Iran accelerated the pace of its intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) program. An upgraded version of the Shahab-3 IRBM, code-named the Emad, was tested in early October 2015. The new model had a range of 1,700 kilometers (approximately 1,100 miles) and incorporated an electronic guidance system enabling it to strike targets with a degree of precision that was unprecedented for weapons manufactured in the Islamic Republic.19 In addition, U.S. officials determined that the missile had the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead. The initial test of the Emad came shortly after a senior Iranian commander told reporters that "Iranians must not be afraid of enemy threats. We won the [1980-88] war with Iraq with the least [sophisticated kinds of] military equipment, but if [Ali] Khamenei gave the orders today to attack Saudi Arabia, we have 2,000 rockets ready to set off from Isfahan."20 Another type of enhanced IRBM, the Ghadr-110, was test-fired over the Arabian Sea in late November 2015.21
Complaints from Washington and European capitals that the launches violated UN Security Council Resolutions 1929 and 2231, as well as the spirit — if not the actual letter — of the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, prompted President Hassan Rouhani to issue a directive to the Iranian Ministry of Defense to step up the development and deployment of locally produced missiles.22 At the same time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) carried out a naval exercise that included firing ship-to-ship rockets in the vicinity of an American aircraft carrier operating near the Strait of Hormuz. On January 5, 2016, Iranian state television broadcast images of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani touring an underground IRGC storage facility that appeared to be fully stocked with Emad missiles. The following month saw the first public display of a new generation of IRBM, the two-stage Simorgh, reportedly scheduled to be tested at the beginning of March.23 In the event, the Simorgh was not launched on that date, although multiple tests of single-stage Qadr-F, Qadr-H and Qiam-1 IRBMs were carried out.24
Even as the Islamic Republic ramped up the potential for missile attacks against Saudi territory, the kingdom found itself increasingly threatened as a result of developments in Iraq. Riyadh studiously kept its northwestern neighbor at arm's length as violence escalated in the Iraqi border province of al-Anbar during the winter of 2013-14.25 Yet in the wake of the Islamic State's June 2014 offensive, militias close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki turned their anger and frustration in the direction of the Saudi authorities.26 Saudi officials reacted by making overtures to tribal leaders in al-Anbar and then deploying some 30,000 troops to guard the frontier.27 The heightened military presence in the border zone elicited a mortar barrage against Saudi positions by fighters loyal to al-Maliki in early July.28 In the wake of this strike, Saudi commanders started to construct a heavily fortified fence along the border, complete with thermal imaging devices and infrared cameras.
A subsequent attack against Saudi forces stationed on the frontier took place in early January 2015, this time by Islamic State fighters.29 By the end of May, however, the Islamic State had been driven out of the southern reaches of al-Anbar by the loose collection of pro-government militias called the Popular Mobilization Forces (Quwwat al-Hashd al-Shabi), operating in conjunction with the Iran-sponsored Party of God Battalions (Kataib Hizbullah).30 Commanders of Kataib Hizbullah asserted that al-Anbar province constituted a vital logistical link between Iran and Syria that needed to be secured by a permanent garrison. They then deployed several short-range missile batteries southeast of Ramadi and reportedly aimed them toward Saudi territory. Increasing Iranian activism in southern Iraq set the stage for a crisis that September between Tehran and Kuwait in which a group of Kuwaiti citizens was charged with planning to carry out an armed insurrection with the assistance of Iranian embassy personnel.31 The alleged plot was attributed to Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
Soon after he assumed his post in December 2015, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Baghdad gave an interview to Iraqi television, during which he observed that the Popular Mobilization Forces should turn the struggle against the Islamic State over to Iraq's regular army, so as not to inflame intersectarian animosity any further.32 Members of the Iraqi national assembly charged that the ambassador was meddling in domestic politics; the foreign ministry warned that, if he continued to "interfere" in the country's internal affairs, he would be declared persona non grata. The incident, which occurred in the wake of Saudi Arabia's execution of the prominent dissident Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, sent anti-Saudi sentiment soaring among Iraqi Shiis.33 The Iran-backed Bands of the People of Truth (Asaib Ahl al-Haqq) and Badr Organization (Munazzamah al-Badr) demanded that Baghdad sever diplomatic relations with Riyadh in response to al-Nimr's killing. These paramilitary organizations redoubled their vituperation against the kingdom after the Iraqi authorities tried to dampen the ensuing crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Bands of the People of Truth had already threatened to send newly formed Special Forces units into Saudi Arabia to destroy unspecified facilities if al-Nimr were put to death.34
As tensions mounted between Riyadh and Iraq's predominantly Shii pro-government militias, the Saudi armed forces hosted large-scale military exercises with GCC, Egyptian, Jordanian, Tunisian, Senegalese and Pakistani troops at the northern end of the Gulf. These exercises, called Northern Thunder, entailed "direct offensive missions in the management of guerrilla operations."35 The maneuvers led Kataib Hizbullah and the Popular Mobilization Front's Abu Fadl al-Abbas Battalions to reinforce their forward positions adjacent to Iraq's southern border.36 More important, representatives of the Popular Mobilization Forces traveled to Damascus to confer with Syrian officials about how best to manage their common security interests.37 In Riyadh's view, the visit confirmed the intimate connection between Iran-sponsored militias in Iraq, on one hand, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah and other pro-Baathi militias in Syria, on the other. The danger associated with this linkage was underscored by reports that the IRGC's elite Jerusalem (al-Quds) Force had joined fighters from Kataib Hizbullah and the Popular Mobilization Forces in southern al-Anbar province, and pushed Iraq's regular armed forces out of the region.38
LESS SAUDI INFLUENCE IN LEBANON
Lebanese politics remained deadlocked between two broad camps from 2009 to 2015. On one side stood an assortment of electoral-reform and anti-Syria parties, generally known as the March 14 Alliance; the other camp consisted of a collection of electoral-procedures-preservation and pro-Syria movements led by Hezbollah, known as the March 8 Alliance.39 The pervasive stasis that characterized the domestic political system became more deeply entrenched after Michel Sulaiman relinquished the presidency in May 2014 and the two camps proved incapable of finding a mutually acceptable successor. As presidential and parliamentary politics stagnated, street protests became the primary means of exercising influence over policy making.
Under these circumstances, the conventional politicians who headed the hierarchical and regimented parties of the March 14 Alliance found themselves at a disadvantage relative to the leaders of the popular movements that made up the March 8 Alliance. Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrullah proved to be particularly adept at mobilizing the party's constituents and fellow travelers: On the occasion of the Shii festival of Ashurah in October 2015, for instance, Nasrullah railed against both the ongoing paralysis of the Lebanese government and the evils of Saudi military intervention in Yemen, eliciting chants of "Death to the Al Saud" from his massed supporters.40 The Party of God accrued further strength and prestige that winter, due to a fortuitous string of successes in skirmishes with the Israel Defense Forces.41
December 2015 brought renewed efforts to install a president, with Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea and Sulaiman Franjiyyah the main contenders. Riyadh was reported to favor Geagea, and Saudi officials expressed displeasure with the kingdom's long-time client, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, when he chose instead to champion Franjiyyah's candidacy, thereby giving Geagea a strong incentive to withdraw from the race and endorse Aoun for the post.42 Left without its preferred candidate, the Saudi government signaled that it, too, would back Franjiyyah.43 In sharp contrast to Riyadh's position, Doha openly praised Geagea for the "wisdom" of his decision to defer to Aoun. Hezbollah threw its weight behind Aoun as well, but met strong resistance from Speaker of Parliament Nabih Birri and other members of the March 8 Alliance.44 Consequently, Geagea abandoned his Saudi patrons and consolidated ties to Hezbollah in order to ensure a victory for Aoun.45
As January 2016 drew to a close, Geagea did his best to convince the Saudi government that Aoun would distance himself from Hezbollah once he took office, so his election would end up splitting the March 8 Alliance.46 Riyadh remained skeptical, however, and the attempt to reconcile with the Al Saud damaged Geagea's rapprochement with Hezbollah.47 Just as matters were coming to a head, the Saudi-owned television station al-Arabiyyah broadcast a documentary about Nasrullah that portrayed him in particularly positive terms, at one point referring to him as a "charismatic, honest …and extremely popular leader."48 The station's general manager was fired within days, but not before irate Saudi citizens had taken to social media to denounce him as a "traitor."49
Hezbollah's burgeoning influence at the pinnacle of Lebanese politics generated friction inside the government of Prime Minister Salam, culminating in the abrupt resignation of Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi, who charged on his way out the door that the Party of God's actions were endangering Lebanon's historic ties to the Arab world. When asked why he praised Rifi for relinquishing his post, Geagea claimed that the move was a reaction to Saudi Arabia's cancellation of military aid, rather than a protest against Hezbollah.50 The Party of God responded by dispatching a high-level delegation to attend the funeral of Muhammad Hasanain Haikal — the first visit to Cairo by party officials since the early years of the Mubarak era. An observer close to the delegation pointed out that "through this visit, Hezbollah is telling everybody that it is not Iranian but rather Arab, with the proof being its good relationship with Egypt and the Egyptians."51
Piqued by the party's overt attempt to burnish its Arab nationalist credentials, Saudi officials issued a bulletin warning citizens to leave Lebanon for security reasons. The Saudi ambassador in Beirut then speculated that, if things continued to deteriorate, Lebanese nationals might have to be expelled from the kingdom: "I hope that we don't reach this stage," he remarked, "and that the Lebanese government takes measures to please the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and bring the problem to a conclusion."52 His comment provoked widespread anger among the Lebanese public, including supporters of the March 14 Alliance. Anti-Saudi sentiment escalated further when Riyadh declined to meet with Salam to discuss ways to ameliorate the crisis. Desperate to avoid a total collapse of popular support, some members of the March 14 Alliance appealed to Washington and Paris to mediate the dispute.53
For its part, Hezbollah doubled down and insisted that it would not make concessions to Saudi Arabia simply to obtain financial assistance: "What happened in the last week from Saudi [Arabia] requires [Riyadh] to apologize to Lebanon, because it insulted [the] Lebanese," asserted the party's deputy leader, Naim Qasim. "Lebanon will not be a Saudi emirate, or an emirate for anyone else."54 Saudi officials then rescinded the residency permits of some 1,000 Lebanese citizens and terminated the business licenses of 250 Lebanese companies operating in the kingdom.55 Whatever influence the kingdom exercised in the country's internal affairs had by the beginning of March 2016 all but evaporated.
PERSISTENT INTERNAL CHALLENGES
Saudi Arabia's domestic order survived comparatively unscathed the popular upheavals that erupted across the Middle East and North Africa in the winter of 2010-11. Nevertheless, pockets of deep-seated discontent continued to exist. One such pocket involved short postings by educated young people on YouTube that criticized aspects of government policy and reiterated longstanding demands for institutional reform, gender equality and a redistribution of wealth.56 Another was centered in the impoverished towns and villages of al-Qasim in the geographical heart of the kingdom, where the ruling family was periodically castigated for its lavish lifestyle and unwillingness to enforce the strict doctrine propounded by Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. A third could be found in disadvantaged districts of the Eastern Province, where disaffected Shiis had engaged in anti-regime protests for decades.
Popular unrest in the Eastern Province flared once again in the fall of 2014, after the authorities pronounced a sentence of death on the outspoken preacher Nimr al-Nimr as punishment for "aiding terrorists" and "waging war on God."57 Large numbers of protesters took to the streets in al-Nimr's hometown of al-Awamiyyah and other parts of al-Qatif; they were met by phalanxes of riot police, who broke up the demonstrations by force. The confrontations prompted Sunni militants to retaliate by attacking isolated Shii communities.58 State officials alleged that the attackers were sponsored by external forces, since the leader of the Islamic State had ordered the movement's adherents to take the armed struggle into countries adjacent to Iraq and Syria.59
April 2015 saw a coordinated campaign by state security forces to break up networks of political activists in the Eastern Province, focused on al-Awamiyyah.60 Residents of the town reportedly took up arms to resist the raids, and in some instances managed to push the police out of their neighborhoods. The governor of the province, Prince Saud bin Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, told reporters that the clashes had been orchestrated by "evil filth" who were "the descendants of the fickle Safavid Abdullah bin Saba" — an unprecedented use of derogatory sectarian rhetoric by a senior state officer.61 At the same time, the police rounded up religious figures in al-Qatif and al-Hasa who had solicited monetary contributions from their communities and passed the funds along to public foundations in Iran.62
Meanwhile, signs of radical activism reappeared in al-Qasim. From December 2014 to May 2015, more than six dozen suspected Islamist militants were arrested and charged with plotting to carry out suicide bombings in Riyadh.63 State officials consistently referred to the detainees as members of the Islamic State. And on May 22, that organization did claim credit for the bombing of a Shii mosque on the outskirts of al-Qatif that killed 21 people.64 The attack ignited a large-scale protest in the town, despite entreaties by a local Shii notable for "mass prayer in a calm, orderly way with self-restraint."65 Six weeks later, state security forces raided a cell of Islamic State adherents in Taif whose members were alleged to have organized the bombing.66
Islamist radicals engaged in sporadic firefights with the members of the security services in various parts of the kingdom throughout the fall of 2015.67 The steadily increasing frequency and intensity of these skirmishes heightened fears among Shiis that the authorities would abandon all restraint in dealing with actual and suspected militants.68 Neighborhood-watch committees that formed in predominantly Shii districts were routinely roughed up by the police, on the grounds that their existence sent the implicit message that the authorities were incapable of protecting the populace.69
Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other Shii and Sunni activists who had been convicted of involvement in terrorist activity of one sort or another. News of his death propelled protesters back into the streets of al-Awamiyyah, chanting "Down with the Al Saud."70 Suicide bombings of Shii mosques by Sunni militants resumed at the end of the month, and in February a group of militants broadcast the roadside assassination of an officer in the security services.71 By early March, informed observers concluded that the regime had taken the decision to deal with resurgent challenges to Al Saud rule by physically eliminating its opponents, rather than placating them or trying to win their consent.72
WHY BLAME HEZBOLLAH?
For the Saudi leadership, the thread that knits all of these threats together is the Lebanon-based Party of God. Riyadh claimed at the end of February 2016 that Hezbollah had delivered a boatload of surface-to-surface missiles to Ansar Allah in Yemen by way of the port at al-Hudaidah.73 The report complemented a videotape released by the Yemeni defense ministry that recorded an attempt by Hezbollah trainers to convince Huthi fighters to carry out suicide bombings on Saudi territory.74 Along the kingdom's northern borders, the activities of Iraq-based Kataib Hizbullah became harder to disentangle from those of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, particularly after the former started to work with IRGC personnel to secure a supply route across al-Anbar province into southern Syria and reports proliferated of the latter's direct involvement in the struggle against the Islamic State in central Iraq. Nasrullah confirmed the party's armed intervention in Iraq on March 6, 2016.
Hezbollah's challenge to Saudi influence in Lebanon can hardly be disputed. Riyadh's fall-back candidate for the presidency, Sulaiman Franjiyyah, and the March 14 Alliance's minister of the interior both recognized which way the wind was blowing and quickly dissociated themselves from the GCC's decision to label the party a terrorist organization.75 Their instincts were shared by the governments of Tunisia, Algeria and Iraq, which refused to vote in favor of a similar resolution when it was submitted to a meeting of Arab League interior ministers. Even Egypt, which did support the resolution, affirmed that it had no intention of cutting ties to Hezbollah.76
Discrediting Hezbollah's regional initiatives plays a more subtle role in parrying domestic challenges to the Saudi regime. The campaign to equate the Party of God with other terrorist organizations in the Middle East, most notably the Islamic State, reaffirms the kingdom's claim to represent the correct way for Muslims to amalgamate strict religious principles and contemporary political practice. Actively combating so-called terrorists in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon constitutes an example of the kind of assertive action that the kingdom's Council of Senior Scholars calls "one of the principal responsibilities demanded by Islam, one that requires that all of the Muslim world should coalesce around and co-operate towards at this time."77 The shift away from a more passive or reactive foreign policy seems to have elicited significant public support, particularly among those Saudi citizens who might be inclined to back militant movements at home and abroad.
More concretely, branding Hezbollah a terrorist group enables the Saudi authorities to crack down on political activists who can be linked to the Lebanon-based party, however tenuously. The most salient instance to date is the arrest of Shaikh Husain al-Radi, who had earlier spoken out against the execution of al-Nimr and expressed admiration for Iran's strategic and diplomatic skills. Two days after a video recording in which al-Radi referred to Hassan Nasrullah as a "hero" appeared on YouTube, the dissident preacher from al-Hasa was taken into custody and charged with inciting the public to violence and "taking advantage of the mosque platform to breach [anti-terrorism] regulations."78
Riyadh's push to have Hezbollah classified a terrorist organization was driven by a covergence of foreign and domestic threats to the security of the Saudi government. The kingdom's stalled military intervention in Yemen, combined with an expansion of Islamic State operations in frontier zones, posed a growing danger from the south. Iran's improved intermediate-range ballistic missile capabilities put the oil and industrial facilities of the Eastern Province in increasing jeopardy. And heightened activity on the part of hostile paramilitary formations and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps along the kingdom's northwestern border heightened the potential for armed conflict with battle-hardened forces in Iraq. By themselves, these external threats might not have convinced Saudi leaders to take the extraordinary step of cajoling the Gulf Cooperation Council to join them in denouncing Hezbollah. But the party's rising influence inside Lebanon relative to actors amenable to Saudi interests, in conjunction with a resurgence of Islamist militance at home, compelled the kingdom's new leaders to take drastic action.
Whether or not the policies that Riyadh implemented in February and March of 2016 will succeed in reducing the combined threats that confront the Saudi regime remains an open question. Ansar Allah felt no compunction to sever whatever ties it might have had with Hezbollah in the wake of the GCC pronouncement, although Huthi representatives did unexpectedly agree to meet with Saudi officials soon afterwards.79 Iran continues to deploy new generations of IRBMs, but senior officials in Tehran have also indicated that they would be willing to engage the GCC states in a "quiet dialogue" concerning regional security.80 In Lebanon, the kingdom's long-time partners have all but collapsed, opening the door for other parties to set the agenda for the March 14 Alliance.81 Even the Saudi ambassador to Beirut has expressed little hope that Riyadh will exercise much influence over Lebanese politics in the foreseeable future.82
This leaves the crucial matter of domestic challenges to Al Saud rule. Popular discontent in the short term is more likely to be provoked by the government's choices about how to deal with the severe problems resulting from the plunge in oil revenues than it is by sectarian grievances. Rivalries inside the ruling family may also determine the degree to which domestic tranquility will be maintained in the medium term. Yet if Shii activism around al-Qatif can be conflated with Hezbollah adventurism in Syria and Iraq, then the chances will improve that the Saudi government will be able to call on its partners in the 39-member anti-terrorism coalition for assistance if smoldering unrest flares up once again.
1 "Nasrallah Lampooned," ynetnews.com, February 28, 2016.
2 Josh Wood, "Saudi Arabia Cancels $4bn Aid Package for Lebanon's Security Forces," The National (Abu Dhabi), February 19, 2016.
3 "Saudi Arabia Confuses Its Allies," al-Akhbar (Beirut), February 25, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
4 "Three Explanations for the Saudi Decision to Halt the Grant to Lebanon," al-Ra'i al-Yawm (London), February 23, 2016 (mideastwire.com); and Amira Howeidy, "Riyadh's Message Behind GCC Designation," al-Ahram Weekly, March 10-16, 2016.
5 Salman Rafi, "Saudis Desperate as They Are Not Winning the War in Yemen," Asia Times, October 16, 2015; and Khalid Hammadi, "Yemen: Salih Activates al-Qa'idah Card in South," al-Quds al-Arabi (London), February 3, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
6 Hugh Naylor, "Yemen Is Turning into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam," Washington Post, November 13, 2015; and Ashraf al-Falahi, "Islamic State Extends Its Tentacles into Yemen," al-monitor.com, November 30, 2015.
7 "Yemeni Forces Seize Provincial Capital from Houthis," al-Jazeera, December 18, 2015; and Charles Schmitz, "Yemen on a Road to Nowhere," Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C., February 1, 2016.
8 Ahmed Alwly, "Assassinations, Chaos Cripple Yemen's Aden," al-monitor.com, January 18, 2016; "Gunmen Kill Police Colonel, Four Others in Yemen's Aden," Agence France Presse, January 24, 2016; "Yemen Police Chief Wounded in Aden Suicide Bombing," Agence France Presse, February 3, 2016; and Mohammed Ghobari and Yara Bayoumy, "Wave of Aden Killings Tests Gulf Role in Yemen," Reuters, February 9, 2016.
9 Nasser Arrabyee, "Rising Extremism in Yemen," Sada, February 19, 2016.
10 "Yemen's Houthis in Talks with Saudis, Reports Say," al-Jazeera, March 9, 2016.
11 International Crisis Group, "Yemen: Is Peace Possible?" Middle East Report No. 167, February 9, 2016; and Neil Partrick "Saudi Arabia's Problematic Allies against the Houthis," Sada, February 12, 2016.
12 Schmitz, "Yemen on a Road."
13 International Crisis Group, "Yemen," 19; and Ghobari and Bayoumy, "Wave of Aden Killings."
14 Ashraf al-Falahi, "Why Yemen May Not be Heading for a Split," al-monitor.com, February 10, 2016.
15 Amal Nasser, "How Long Can Saudi Arabia Afford Yemen War?" al-monitor.com, January 21, 2016; Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, "The City Where War Is the Best Employer: Life in Liberated Aden," Guardian, February 18, 2016; and Nasser Arrabyee, "Saudi Arabia's Unholy War," Sada, March 3, 2016.
16 Fahad Nazer, "Is Saudi Arabia Building an 'Islamic NATO'?" al-monitor.com, December 20, 2015.
17 Ahmed Fouad, "What's Saudi's New Islamic Coalition Really Up To?" al-monitor.com, December 22, 2015.
18 Sami Nader, "Saudi Anti-Terrorism Coalition Raises Eyebrows in Lebanon," al-monitor.com, December 29, 2015; and "Lebanon's Hezbollah Says Saudi-Led Anti-IS Coalition Is Suspicious," Reuters, December 17, 2015.
19 Tim Hume, "Iran Test-Fires New Generation Long-Range Ballistic Missiles," CNN, October 11, 2015; and Abbas Qaidaari, "What's So Special about Iran's Latest Missiles?" al-monitor.com, October 20, 2015.
20 "Iran Has Rockets 'To Attack Saudi Arabia,'" Middle East Monitor, October 3, 2015.
21 Avaneesh Pandey, "Iran Test-Fires Another Mid-Range Ballistic Missile, Possibly Breaching UN Sanctions," International Business Times, December 8, 2015.
22 "Iran Says It Will Expand Missile Programme in Response to U.S. Sanctions Threat," The National, December 31, 2015.
23 "Iran Shows Off Second Underground Ballistic Missile Facility," Deutsche Welle, January 5, 2016.
24 Justin Bronk, "Iran's Missiles: How Big a Threat to Regional Rivals?" al-Jazeera, March 9, 2016; and Mahan Abedin, "Iran Displays 'Deterrence Power'," al-Ahram Weekly, March 17-23, 2016.
25 Glen Carey, "Unrest in Anbar Reflects Tense Iraq-Saudi Relations," The National, January 10, 2014.
26 Fahad Nazer, "Saudi Arabia Threatened by ISIS Advance in Iraq," al-monitor.com, June 25, 2014.
27 Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi, "Saudi Arabia Sees Allies among Iraq's Sunni Tribes," al-monitor.com, June 25, 2014; and Richard Spencer, "Saudi Arabia Sends 30,000 Troops to Iraq Border," Telegraph (London), July 3, 2014.
28 "Mortar Bombs Land in Saudi Arabia near Iraq Border," Reuters, July 8, 2014.
29 Angus McDowall, "Three Saudi Guards Killed in Suicide, Gun Attack on Iraq Border," Reuters, January 5, 2015.
30 "Iran Installs Rocket Launchers in Iraq, Directed towards KSA," al-Quds al-Arabi, June 1, 2015 (mideastwire.com).
31 "Iran and Kuwait: The Features of a New Crisis," al-Safir (Beirut), September 9, 2015 (mideastwire.com).
32 "Iraq Summons Saudi Ambassador over Shia Militia Comment," al-Jazeera, January 24, 2016.
33 Ali Mamouri, "Widespread Iraqi Anger Threatens Saudi Ties," al-monitor.com, January 25, 2016.
34 "Iraqi Militias Direct Their Forces to Saudi Borders," al-Quds al-Arabi, February 11, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
35 "al-Quds al-'Arabi Reveals Details of Northern Thunder and Jordan's and Egypt's Role," al-Quds al-Arabi, February 9, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
36 Mustafa al-'Ubaidi, "Tensions on Iraqi-Saudi Border with Launching of 'Northern Thunder' Exercises," al-Quds al-Arabi, February 16, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
37 "Unintended Consequences of Turkish-Saudi Threats: Tightening of Iraq-Syria Militia Relations," al-Akhbar, February 17, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
38 "Iraqi Security Official: Iran Turns Town near Saudi Border into Military Base," al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), February 27, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
39 Suechika Kota, "Undemocratic Lebanon? The Power-Sharing Arrangements after the 2005 Independence Intifada," Journal of Ritsumeikan Social Sciences and Humanities 4 (2012): 103-131.
40 Tom Perry and Laila Bassam, "Lebanon's Hezbollah Takes Aim at Saudi Arabia on Ashura," Reuters, October 24, 2015.
41 Michel Nasr, "Hizbullah Implemented the Operation Professionally, Israel Is Floundering," al-Diyyar (Beirut), January 6, 2016 (mideastwire.com); and Nour Samaha, "Hezbollah's Death Valley," foreignpolicy.com, March 3, 2016.
42 Hiam Kussaify, "'Presidential Breakthrough' between Awn, Geagea; al-Hariri Is the Biggest Loser," al-Akhbar, January 8, 2016 (mideastwire.com); Louay Faour, "Geagea Endorses War Time Rival Aoun for Presidency," Daily Star (Beirut), January 18, 2016; and Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen, "Advantage Iran in Lebanese Political Proxy Battle with Saudi Arabia," Guardian, January 18, 2016.
43 "Saudi Royal Court to Ja'ja: You Committed a Sin," al-Safir, January 21, 2016, mideastwire.com.
44 "Mirab's Wedding Confuses al-Hariri, Franjiyyah, Causes Birri, Jumblatt to Become Nervous," al-Akhbar, January 19, 2016 (mideastwire.com); Hussein Dakroub, "Allies Stick with Frangieh to Block Aoun," Daily Star, January 20, 2016; and Kamal Thibian, "Hizbullah Is Committed to its 'Honest Promise,' However…" al-Diyyar, January 22, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
45 "Lebanese Forces Chairman Working on Expanding the Alliance between Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement," al-Safir, January 27, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
46 "al-Hariri Incites Saudi Arabia against Geagea," al-Akhbar, February 1, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
47 "An Analysis of Nasrullah's Speech," al-Safir, February 1, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
48 Maryam 'Abdullah, "The 'Hasan Tornado' Proceeding in al-'Arabiyyah," al-Akhbar, February 24, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
49 "Al Arabiya TV Head Dismissed over Nasrallah Documentary," presstv.com, February 23, 2016.
50 "Targeting Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia Suspends Lebanon Military Aid," Middle East Policy Council, Washington, D.C., February 24, 2016.
51 "Hizbullah Looking for Arab Cover in Egypt," al-Mudun (online), February 24, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
52 "Saudi Arabia Confuses Its Allies," al-Akhbar, February 25, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
54 Tom Perry and Laila Bassam, "Hezbollah Signals No End to Saudi Crisis," Reuters, February 26, 2016.
55 Esperance Ghanem, "Is the Saudi, Lebanese Relationship Gone for Good?" al-monitor.com, March 3, 2016.
56 Fouad al-Ibrahim, "Saudi Rulers Face Growing Rumblings of Discontent," al-Akhbar English (Beirut), April 5, 2014.
57 "Saudi Arabia Sentences Sheikh Nimr to Death," al-Akhbar English, October 15, 2014.
58 Angus McDowall, "Uncurbed Sectarianism Prompted Village Attack Say Saudi Shi'ites," Reuters, November 6, 2014.
59 "Saudi Arabia Says Islamic State Ordered Attack on Shi'ites in al-Ahsa," Reuters, November 24, 2014.
60 Omar Awamiyah, "'They're Afraid We'll Protest Yemen Operation,' Say Saudi Shiites," france24.com, April 6, 2015.
61 Rori Donaghy, "Eastern Province Governor Says 'Evil Filth' among Saudi Arabia's Shiite Community," Middle East Eye, April 9, 2015.
62 Ibrahim al-Hatlani, "Gas Price Hike, Subsidy Cuts Shake Up Saudis," al-monitor.com, January 25, 2016.
63 "Saudi Arabia 'Arrests 93 Members of Islamic State Cells,'" BBC, April 28, 2015.
64 Sami Aboudi, "Suicide Bomber Kills 21 at Saudi Shi'ite Mosque, Islamic State Claims Attack," Reuters, May 22, 2015.
65 Noah Browning, "Saudi Clerics Urge Calm as Village Hit by Islamic State Sethes," Reuters, May 23, 2015; and Madawi Al-Rasheed, "Shiites Reel from Attack in Saudi Province," al-monitor.com, May 26, 2015.
66 "Saudi Policeman Killed in Raid, IS Flags Found: Ministry," Agence France Presse, July 3, 2015; and Toby Matthiesen, "The Islamic State Exploits Entrenched Anti-Shia Incitement," Sada, July 21, 2015.
67 "Saudi Security Forces Kill 'Terrorist' in Abqaiq," Reuters, September 4, 2015; "The Buqaiq Incident: Three Held in Custody, Terrorist Paid His Family," al-Hayah (Beirut), September 6, 2015 (mideastwire.com); "Saudi Police Seize Suspected Militants with Guns and Suicide Vest," Reuters, September 6, 2015; "Saudi Forces Kill ISIL Suspects in Riyadh and Dammam," al-Jazeera, September 28, 2015; "Gunfire after Police Seal Saudi Shiite Town: Resident," Agence France Presse, October 6, 2015; "Gunman Attacks Shia Gathering in Saudi Arabia," al-Jazeera, October 16, 2015; and "ISIL Claims Saudi Mosque Suicide Bombing," al-Jazeera, October 27, 2015.
68 Angus McDowall, "Open Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia Frightens Shi'ites," Reuters, October 26, 2015.
69 Hala al-Dosari, "Sending a Message to Saudi Shia," Sada, November 5, 2015.
70 "Scores of Saudi Shi'ites March in Protest at Cleric's Execution," Reuters, January 2, 2016.
71 "Deadly Attack Rocks Mosque in Saudi Arabia," al-Jazeera, January 29, 2016; and Ben Hubbard, "ISIS Turns Saudis against the Kingdom, and Families against their Own," New York Times, March 31, 2016.
72 Husain 'Abdullah, "The Saudi King Opted for Physically Eliminating His Opponents," al-Akhbar, March 16, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
73 Sa'id Ilyas, "Hizbullah's Smuggling of Missile Shipment to Huthis Fuelled Saudi Anger," al-Quds al-Arabi, February 26, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
74 Ibrahim al-Hatlani, "Saudis Increasingly Frustrated with Lebanon," al-monitor.com, February 26, 2016; and Mohammed Hatem, "Yemen Accuses Hezbollah of Helping Houthis in Saudi Border War," Reuters, February 24, 2016.
75 "Frangieh Denounces Hezbollah's 'Terror' Listing," Daily Star, March 3, 2016; Marc Abizeid, "GCC Brands Hezbollah 'Terrorist' in Crisis Escalation," Daily Star, March 3, 2016; and Ali Rizk, "Hezbollah Responds to GCC Decision," al-monitor.com, March 7, 2016.
76 "Arab Breech of the Saud Family Consensus," al-Akhbar, March 4, 2016 (mideastwire.com).
77 Nibras Kazimi, "Saudi Arabia's 'Islamic Alliance': Major Challenge for al-Baghdadi's Islamic State, or Potential Opportunity?" hudson.org, March 9, 2016.
78 "Saudi Arrests Shiite Imam for 'Glorfying' Hezbollah," Agence France Presse, March 22, 2016.
79 "Yemen's Houthis in Talks with Saudis, Reports Say," al-Jazeera, March 9, 2016.
80 Cecily Hilleary, "Saudi/Iran Détente May Be Advisable, But Is It Likely?" Voice of America, March 24, 2016.
81 "March 14 Movement No Longer Exists: Amine Gemayel," Daily Star, March 25, 2016; and "Kataeb Disappointed over Failure to Approve New Electoral Law," Daily Star, March 29, 2016.
82 "Saudi Envoy Recognizes Lack of Unanimous Backing for Frangieh," Daily Star, March 31, 2016.