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Interview With Rania Masri On Saudi Arabia And Kidnapping Of Lebanese Prime Minister

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When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s plane landed in Saudi Arabia on November 3, his phone was confiscated. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not send an entourage to greet him like a dignitary. The next day, he appeared in a taped broadcast on a Saudi television station and read a statement that suggested he had resigned.

Hariri has essentially been held incommunicado for over a week, even though a few heads of state have apparently been allowed to see him under the supervision of Saudi authorities. Lebanese President Michel Aoun demands the Saudis end this “blunt” and “bare-faced” intervention in the country’s “domestic affairs.” It likely involves the Saudi regime’s disapproval of how he has handled Hezbollah.

Was this all meant to provoke an Israeli military assault on Lebanon?

Hariri’s detention unfolds as Salman and others simultaneously burnish their image in the world press as reformers. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud launched an “anti-corruption probe” and rounded up hundreds of princes, investors, and moguls, who are detained at a Ritz Carlton hotel. The move does not seem to involve much due process, and it is quite clearly an attempt to consolidate power.

This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, Arab American professor and activist Rania Masri joins the show to unpack and contextualize all that has happened with Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in the past days.

Masri briefly outlines political responses in Lebanon, what the Saudi regime may be seeking to accomplish, and how media is whitewashing the regime by treating the Crown Prince as a “reformer.” She also addresses the blaming of Iran for the escalation in tensions. And, later in the show, she recaps the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency and how the administration has reinforced the agenda of the Saudi regime.

Listen to the interview with Rania Masri by clicking on the above player or by going here.

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Below is a partial transcript from the interview:

RANIA KHALEK: Walk us through what happened last week, beginning with how we got to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning on al Arabiya to today and what’s going on now?

RANIA MASRI: It is a bit surreal, and I’ll try to say it very quickly. On Thursday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia. He canceled all his appointments and went to Riyadh. He was picked up at the airport and taken directly the Ritz Carlton, where dozens and dozens — Approximately 49 princes and influential Saudi businessmen have also been held. But Saad Hariri was held separately from them.

He was taken to the Ritz Carlton villa. His phone was taken away from him. He was given this statement, this resignation letter that the Saudis had written for them, and he was told to read it on air and to read it on television. He was not allowed to consult with anybody or to use his phone. After he read the letter, and it was a taped broadcast on Saudi television, al Arabiya, which is a Saudi television station—After he read that letter, he was then taken to meet the king, and the joke in Lebanon is that the Saudi king accepted his resignation as the Lebanese Prime Minister.

We heard about this [Rania Masri is based in Lebanon]. Imagine this: our prime minister issues, reads a statement telling us he’s resigning as prime minister, not live, not at a press conference, but in a taped broadcast from a foreign TV station from outside the country. So naturally, the Lebanese President and the Lebanese Speaker of the House responded by saying, look, if you want to resign, you actually need to come to Lebanon.

Seriously, as of yet, the government is saying we cannot either accept nor reject your resignation. We consider it to be just a statement that we believe you read involuntarily and under duress.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah leader] today in his second speech, he stated that the resignation is unconstitutional, illegitimate, and illegal and that the government still holds. The Future Movement, which is Saad Hariri’s political party of whom he is the leader, also stated that they are calling for Saad Hariri to return to Lebanon. Now, Saad Hariri read this resignation letter on Saturday. Today is Friday. He has still not returned to Lebanon.

Numerous, numerous reports, including from his bodyguards that went with him and returned from Lebanon, including from other Saudi sources that we have in the country, have told us that Saad Hariri remains held in involuntary detention by the Saudi government. So it is quite serious actually and the Lebanese government may be thinking about a resolution or a call from the UN Security Council calling for a release of our captive Prime Minister.

In the meantime, just to add another level of surrealism, the Saudi Mohammed bin Salman, the King, their spokesperson, and another Saudi minister stated that Lebanon has declared war on Saudi Arabia. Typically, when a country declares war, it states that it’s declaring war. Here we are told by Saudi Arabia that we have declared on Saudi Arabia ergo Saudi Arabia is now declaring war on Lebanon.

It’s no longer a public secret. It’s quite well known now that Saudi Arabia is in discussion with the Israeli government and Saudi Arabia is encouraging the Israeli government to launch attacks on Lebanon. So the most extreme possibility is there could be a Saudi-Israeli military attack on Lebanon.

We also need to remember that the Pentagon stated this week that they remain strong defense allies with Saudi Arabia, and that the U.S. for the first time ever setup a military base within Israel. So who knows who could be launching an attack on Lebanon. That is one of the options that the Saudis are discussing. The Saudis have also openly stated that they will consider all options, not just political options.

So on one extreme, we have this either a Saudi war, a Saudi-Israeli war, another kind of launching of a war against Lebanon. The least option is that there could be financial sanctions or a blockade, similar to what they did on Qatar, could be imposed on Lebanon.

In the midst of all this, we also need to remember who this Saudi regime actually is and that this is a regime that launched a war against Yemen, a war that has had regular, regular massacres, a war that even the United Nations declares now could lead to a famine like what is unseen historically, a very exceptional famine where millions could die in Yemen. So we know what the Saudis are capable of in Yemen.

We know what they’re capable of in Syria because of the Saudi support of ISIS and the funding that they gave to ISIS and that through released documents we know the Saudis wanted to “light up Damascus.” So we know they have that capable and desire. We also know—and I think this makes them all the more dangerous—that not only have they tried in Yemen and in Iraq and in Syria but they have failed everywhere that they have tried to achieve their military objectives and so now they’re looking into Lebanon and trying to figure out what they can do in Lebanon, using Lebanon as a proxy war against Iran.

KHALEK: What’s incredible about what you just said—I just want to give some context for people who are not familiar with the way that Lebanon works. The Prime Minister of Lebanon, who Saudi Arabia basically forced to resign, Saad Hariri, his party was like a Saudi puppet party?

MASRI: Yes, in the sense that you can say the Future Movement has always been strongly aligned with Saad Hariri. But as of yet, he has not resigned. According to Lebanese law, he is a prime minister who read a resignation letter whose resignation has not been accepted.

KHALEK: What’s stunning—obviously, I’m not in Lebanon at the moment—but watching from here, just the reactions. The reason I mention the Future Movement Party is aligned with Saudi Arabia is because it looks to me as though this move, which seemed intended to stoke sectarian tensions as well by trying to blame Hezbollah and Iranian interference in Lebanon, it seems to have united Lebanon in a way against Saudi Arabia, including the Future Movement, which is demanding Saad Hariri come back to Lebanon.

MASRI: It has not worked. This is the thing. I think the Saudi regime underestimates the Lebanese, as they have underestimated the Yemenis and the Syrians and the Iraqis. They seem to be quite caught up in their arrogance to such an extent that they seem to underestimate everybody. And just like Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in his latest speech, you cannot plan a war and underestimate your foe. And they have been doing that.

What have the Saudis done thus far? They have asked their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately as have the Bahrainis and the Kuwaitis. We’re like, okay, so that might cause a bump on our economy, a small little bump, but beyond that it’s psychological warfare.

They have also tried to impose their preference, who is Bahaa Hariri, Saad Hariri’s older brother, as the leader of the Future Movement. The Future Movement rejected him, and I can go into all these details behind why Bahaa was rejected by the Future Movement. They’re trying to impose a prime minister on the country, and our Minister of Interior, who is also aligned with the Future Movement, said yesterday, “We are not sheep that can be bought and sold.” Very strong language has been the response.

Clearly, the Saudi regime has been trying to right now impose itself and to cause civil division within Lebanon. They have failed miserably so far. So, as of yet, you only have Ashraf Rifi, who is an extreme right wing war lord, and you have Samir Geagea, who was the head of the Lebanese Forces, who is also an extreme right wing war lord.

But the other right wing war lords are not standing with them. So from Walid Jumblatt from the Progressive Socialist Party, Bayt (House) of Gemayel of the Kataeb Party (Phalange). Of course, the Free Patriotic Movement led by General Aoun to the Amal Movement led by Speaker of the House Nabih Berri to of course Hezbollah led by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. They’re all standing together, all of them calling for calm, wisdom, and the return of our captive prime minister. [*Correction from Rania Masri: Aoun’s son-in-law, Gibran Basil, heads the Free Patriotic Movement.]

KHALEK: What were you saying about Saad Hariri’s older brother being imposed?

MASRI: So Bahaa Hariri has been for the past year aligned with Ashraf Rifi. He actually supported a political opponent of the Future Movement in the last municipal elections, which happened last year. Bahaa Hariri is also known to be much closer to Mohammed bin Salman, the current Saudi Crown Prince, than Saad Hariri, who has wider affiliations within Saudi Arabia. Even it’s stated when Bahaa Hariri called his mother to get her support, she responded, have you talked to Saad? You talk to Saad first and then we’ll have a conversation. So, even his own mother is not supporting him on this.

The Saudis have also done in Lebanon a lot like what they’ve done in the Guardian. Now, anybody who reads the Guardian for the past few weeks would go, oh my god, the Guardian has really elevated the quality of yellow journalism here. And I mean yellow journalism because clearly they’ve been bought when you have the Guardian publish article after article after article talking about the reform of Mohammed bin Salman and presenting him as the reform king, which like As’ad AbuKhalil says would be akin to presenting Donald Trump as a feminist.

In the same way that the Saudis are pumping money into the Guardian, and by the way, they also have been pumping money into the United States through a public relations firm that is also aligned with the UAE. In that same way, they are also pumping money into certain media channels here in Lebanon. That’s why. It becomes really, really important that people like Nasrallah did not take the bait of the vile language in that resignation letter for Saad Hariri and that he read under duress. He did not respond to the language and the vile accusations made against Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has not responded to the fact that the Saudi Minister continues to call them the party of the devil. So rather, they have worked for the past week to de-escalate political tension, which I think is really, really key so this country does not break down in further tension and further chaos.

For the rest of the interview, click on the above player or go here.

Photo by Devyn Springer
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."