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Saudi Arabia Orders Its Citizens To Leave Lebanon

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two important powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have a lot of influence in the Middle East. They're on different sides of some dangerous conflicts. And people who follow the region watch closely for evidence that their rivalry is growing. We could be at such a moment. The prime minister of Lebanon unexpectedly quit last week. And Saad Hariri announced this, but he was not even in Lebanon. He was in Saudi Arabia. And in explaining his resignation, he blamed Iran. Let's talk about this moment with NPR's correspondent in Beirut, Ruth Sherlock.

Ruth, good morning.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So all this started with a resignation of a prime minister. Remind us what happened here.

SHERLOCK: Yes. This is the case of the vanishing prime minister. Last Saturday, Saad Hariri said he was resigning. And it was a decision that it seems even some of his closest aides didn't know about. And he said he was doing this to protest outside interference in Lebanese politics. He particularly blamed Iran. He says that - well, Iran - we know that Iran funds Hezbollah, this powerful Lebanese group here. And he said this was damaging Lebanon's independence. And he also said the group threatened him personally.

But here's the strange thing. As you said, David, I mean, he delivered the speech from Saudi Arabia. It was a televised address. And Saudi Arabia has meddled in Lebanese affairs, too. And they were seen as having an influence over Hariri. So now some people are saying that, actually, it wasn't Hariri's decision to resign, but that the Saudis forced him to.

GREENE: I mean, this is strange.

SHERLOCK: (Laughter).

GREENE: Why would the Saudis want to force Hariri out?

SHERLOCK: Well, if this is what they've done - and we should say that they do deny it - it's a move designed to throw down a gauntlet against Iran. So in Lebanon, Iran backs Hezbollah, a militia and political group. And it's now extremely powerful, and it's even got representation in the Lebanese government. And the Saudis have never really respected Hariri. And they saw him as being kind of toothless against Hezbollah. So with him out, they can now say that the Lebanese government and Hezbollah are one and the same.

And they want other countries to oppose Iran's, namely the U.S. and Israel, to crack down on Hezbollah there. The U.S. and Israel have already been outspoken against Iran. There's been so much rhetoric ramping up in the last few months. And they just - the U.S. just slapped more sanctions on Hezbollah. So if the Saudis removed Hariri in Lebanon, this would make things kind of simpler for these countries. Or at least that's what the Saudis think.

GREENE: So this might be the Saudis reacting here to a time when Iran seems to be coming - to be becoming more dominant in other countries throughout the region, right?

SHERLOCK: Yes, that's right. So we have heard about Iran a lot here. They have been getting a dominant role in Syria and in Iraq. And they're even countering the Saudis in a war that's happening in Yemen. The Saudis have decided that this is just all too much. They're absolutely furious. And there's a new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who's been seen as being much more hawkish than the previous rulers. And he's clearly drawing red lines here against Iran.

GREENE: So let me just ask you a basic question. Is this dangerous?

SHERLOCK: Well, yes. Saudi has emphasized how seriously it sees the situation in Lebanon by calling all of its citizens to leave the country yesterday. Other Gulf states have done the same. I don't - I think we can say this means that there'll be war tomorrow, though in Lebanon, that's hard. You know, we can never really predict that.

GREENE: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: But it's more likely the Saudis will push for more economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. But in any case, you know, analysts say this aggressiveness between these two countries is a tinderbox. And whilst it's a war of words at the moment, it's becoming ever harder to control.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ruth Sherlock trying to explain the situation for us from Beirut. Ruth, I really appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.