Minister of Saudi Hawk leads campaign against Iran and proxies


BEIRUT – The powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia depends on a small group of advisers, none more provocative than Thamer al-Sabhan, the fiercely anti-Iranian government minister whose fingerprints were on the hasty and ultimately unsuccessful resignation of the first Lebanese minister at the beginning of the month.

As Saudi minister of Gulf affairs, al-Sabhan steps in to help shape the kingdom's high-stakes bets to counter Iran.

The surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is believed to have orchestrated the kingdom, al-Sabhan launched threats against the Lebanese government, as well as against Iran and its ally Hezbollah via Twitter, which disconcerted many Lebanese who feared being dragged back to the vanguard. the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy.

Three months earlier, al-Sabhan had been sent to Beirut to meet with Hariri and deliver a strong warning against the concessions that could favor Iran's allies in Lebanon.

Hariri's resignation, announced from Riyadh on November 4 at a Saudi-owned television station, seemed to confirm fears that the kingdom's rivalry with Iran could destabilize another country in the region, this time of the sensitive power distribution system of Lebanon. The mediation of France, a close ally of both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, helped reverse the resignation, which Hariri suspended after his return to Beirut.

Although Saudi Arabia may have put pressure on Hezbollah and drew attention to the growing expansion of the militant Shiite footprint group, the kingdom's political movements in Lebanon were seen largely as a debacle that failed.

Al-Sabhan, 50, was at the center of everything.

Al-Sabhan's first trip to Washington, in March, was with Mohammed bin Salman, who only a few months later would be named Crown Prince and heir to the Saudi throne. It was a fundamental visit that would consolidate Riyadh's relationship with the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump.

However, a subsequent trip to Washington earlier this month did not go so well. Days after Hariri's resignation, al-Sabhan met with officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council of the White House.

Instead of seeking support for the resignation, al-Sabhan received criticism from US officials who scolded him and pressured him to stop his provocative tweets, according to reports in the Arab media and a person aware of the result. of the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting. They also asked who gave al-Sabhan the right to undermine Lebanon's stability at a time when Washington supported the Lebanese armed forces and the country housed more than one million Syrian refugees.

The prince of the Saudi crown of 32 years the policies towards Iran are largely incorporated and amplified in al-Sabhan. Nowhere is it explained more clearly than on Twitter, where al-Sabhan has referred to Hezbollah backed by Iran, which means "Party of God" in Arabic, as the "Party of Satan".

A few days before Hariri resigns, Al-Sabhan warned in an interview with a Lebanese television station that there would be "staggering" developments to overthrow the Shiite militant group in Lebanon. He also said that the Lebanese government, headed by Hariri, would be treated as a hostile government that has declared war on Saudi Arabia for the role of Hezbollah in sharing power.

"It is up to the leaders (of Lebanon) to decide if it is a state of terror or peace," he wrote on Twitter two days after Hariri's resignation.

Al-Sabhan, who was a Saudi military attache in Lebanon at Hezbollah supervised in 2014 and 2015, received information from some Lebanese politicians about the group's role in the Syrian civil war, according to a Lebanese who spoke frequently with Sabhan during his stay in Beirut.

Al-Sabhan used to talk to politicians, journalists and businessmen at a café in the exclusive neighborhood of Verdun in Beirut, said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

"He's a tight person, he listens more than he talks," the Lebanese said.

After his pbadage through Lebanon, al-Sabhan was appointed Saudi Arabia's first ambbadador to Iraq in more than 25 years.

But only nine months at work, the Iraqi government demanded that al-Sabhan be replaced after he sparked protests for alleging that the government refused to provide him with better protection against what he said were group plans of Shiite militias backed by Iran to badbadinate him. He also called on the Iraqi government to exclude Shiite paramilitary groups from the military campaign against the Islamic State group.

Al-Sabhan was called and appointed to his current ministerial position, where he has used Twitter to vocalize the reckless anti-Iran of the kingdom. rhetoric.

He has also been sent to missions around the world. He was seen last month in the Syrian city of Raqqa with a US official after the de facto capital of the Islamic State group was recaptured by Syrian forces backed by the United States and led by Kurds.

In Saudi Arabia, al-Sabhan has sat in high-level meetings and welcomed the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon when he visited the conservative Sunni country on a first such trip. He was also present at the meeting of the Patriarch with King Salman.

Al-Sabhan also sat at the king's meeting with the foreign minister of Turkey in June, the meeting of the crown prince in August with the prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and meetings with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

On Twitter, al-Sabhan has openly tried to take the initiative in Lebanon, demanding that Hezbollah be expelled from the government and asking the Lebanese to confront the militant group. He even got into a dispute on Twitter with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hbadan Nasrallah.

In one of the speeches by the Hezbollah leader, he described al-Sabhan as "zaatout," a derogatory Arab term that means variously "little monkey with a lot of hair" or an "adult who behaves like a child".

Al-Sabhan responded with a tweet of his own. "If an incompetent man criticizes me, this is proof that I am a complete man," he wrote.

Former Lebanese cabinet minister Wiam Wahhab, an ally of Hezbollah, described al-Sabhan in a television interview as a "monster in the loose."

"I hope that Thamer al-Sabhan pays the price of such militia behavior, "he said.


Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material can not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed.

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