Can Hariri’s ‘selfie diplomacy’ boost his chances in Lebanon’s upcoming election?

Twitter - @saadhariri | Photo posted April 9, 2018 by Lebanese PM Saad Hariri on Twitter.

Saad Hariri may have handed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a PR coup with his controversial selfies during a Paris visit this week. But with an upcoming election, the Lebanese prime minister had little choice.


When Prince Mohammed paid a state visit to the UK last month, the public relations drive -- complete with giant billboards welcoming the Saudi crown prince -- was so intense that the British press dubbed him, “the prince of PR”. On his visit to France though, the Saudi prince, who is also known by his initials MBS, got his biggest PR boost from an unlikely source -- for free.

On Monday, April 9, shortly after midnight, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- who happened to be in Paris while the Saudi prince was in town – posted a selfie of himself with MBS and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI at Le Gabriel, an upscale Parisian restaurant. The photograph was accompanied by an intriguing, “No comment” in Arabic from Hariri.

There was no dearth of comments on Twitter, though. Barely five months ago, Hariri was effectively detained in Saudi Arabia and forced to announce his resignation on a Saudi TV station during a humiliating sojourn to the Gulf kingdom that is still cloaked in official secrecy. The resignation was withdrawn days later following protests by Hariri’s supporters in Lebanon and a diplomatic intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron.

In other words, Prince Mohammed’s unpaid PR coup came from an Arab leader he allegedly detained and forced to resign, albeit briefly. The incongruous turnaround from prisoner to jailer’s promoter highlighted a peculiar form of Stockholm syndrome that has gripped many of the Saudi crown prince’s wealthy and powerful former detainees. It also underscored the precarious nature of politics in a tinderbox region that is being further destabilised by a bitter feud between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

With just a few weeks to go before Lebanon’s May 6 general elections, Hariri’s latest display of “selfie diplomacy” sparked a rash of taunts on Twitter.

“Aw shucks, what’s a little kidnapping, slapping, kicking around among good friends?!” tweeted Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

Algerian satirical site El Manchar took it further with a Tweet (in French) parodying a dialogue between the three Arab scions.
MBS: Saad, will you take a photo of us?
Hariri: Why me?
MBS: Do you want me to detain you...
Mohammed VI: In Tazmamart? [A notorious Moroccan secret prison]

Hariri: Okay, say cheese!

The next day, Hariri posted yet another selfie with the Saudi strongman, this time with Macron between them.

With the campaign season heating up ahead of a vote that will test the strength of entrenched Lebanese leaders, an apparent Twitter faux pas would normally be the last thing a politician needed on the campaign trail.

But as many Lebanese readily agree, nothing is particularly “normal” within the Lebanese political establishment.

“Lebanese politics is a laughing stock these days. Hariri has a tendency to do politics on Twitter, like several Lebanese politicians. It’s also part of the Lebanese folklore. We prefer this to the situation in the surrounding region, where no one can joke or exchange jabs or criticise political leaders,” explained Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and international relations professor at the Beirut-based St. Joseph University.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, where bloggers, activists and other critics of the government are serving long-term prison sentences, Lebanon has a flawed, fractured but largely free and vibrant democratic system.

There’s also plenty of space for humour among Lebanese politicians. A few years ago, when Walid Joumblatt joined Twitter, the veteran warlord-turned-politician “broke the Lebanese internet,” with his wit, candour and hilarious unfamiliarity with the medium. Nearly four years later, the 68-year-old leader of the Progressive Socialist Party has more than 700,000 followers and his Twitter feed has turned into a go-to platform for Lebanese and Middle Eastern political aficionados.

Playground for regional powerhouses

While Hariri’s Paris selfies with MBS highlighted the Lebanese prime minister’s subservience to the Saudi royal family, it was not clear whether it would affect his standing in the upcoming elections.

“I think that going into the elections, Saad Hariri wanted to show that they have patched things up, that the controversy has ended, and that the two of them are totally aligned. It seems like Saudi Arabia is backing Saad Hariri in the elections. They had previously tried to privilege more hardline Sunni politicians. Today, it looks like the Saudis are back to considering Hariri the main leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis,” said Bitar.

Lebanon has long been a playground of regional powerhouses, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia. But while this frustrates many Lebanese, it’s a reality voters have been forced to accept.

Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite movement, continues to be a powerful player in Lebanese politics, a source of anxiety for the Saudis, who view themselves as the leader of the world’s Sunnis.

In the past, Hezbollah’s stranglehold over Lebanese politics was a key issue on the campaign trail, with elections largely fought between Hariri’s pro-West and pro-Saudi “March 14” movement pitted against the Shiite dominated, pro-Syria and pro-Iran “March 8” alliance.

But those lines have blurred in recent years. Hariri is currently in a coalition government with Hezbollah.

Unaltered political landscape

The alleged Saudi kidnapping of Hariri was widely viewed as a move by MBS to weaken Hezbollah. But it was a plot that backfired, resulting instead in increased support for both Hariri and Hezbollah in their respective constituencies.

Most analysts believe Hariri is likely to stay on as prime minister of a coalition government even if his Future Movement party loses a few seats in the May 6 elections. The make-up of the 128-seat parliament is also not expected to be dramatically altered despite a new electoral law based on proportional representation and the rise of independent candidates opposed to the traditional Lebanese parties.

“The elections will likely produce an almost identical balance of power in parliament, a virtual renewal of the existing political elites,” predicted Bitar. “The current electoral law and ensuing political alliances are tailor-made to prevent newcomers from posing a real challenge to the establishment parties, which are sharing the spoils in the so-called “consociational democracy” we have in Lebanon.”

Rescuing the Saudi prince’s popularity

While Hariri gained popularity within Lebanon following his infamous November 2017 Saudi sojourn, the Saudi crown prince’s heavy-handed tactics succeeded in alienating regional and international players, including staunch Saudi allies such as the US.

Hariri’s Paris tweets boasting of his bromance with the man who tried to force his resignation was aimed at reassuring his Sunni supporters that he had the backing of the oil-rich Gulf kingdom at a particularly difficult time, with Hezbollah and Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.

In effect, the Lebanese prime minister -- who holds Saudi, Lebanese and French citizenship and whose family and business interests reside in Saudi Arabia – also didn’t have much of a choice.“For Lebanon’s Sunni community, Saudi Arabia is important symbolically, materially and for geopolitical reasons,” explained Bitar. “Hariri probably felt offended or humiliated by the way things were handled by the Saudis. He tried to resist Saudi pressure because he is aware that Lebanon ultimately needs to be ruled by consensus.”

And so, in the interests of Lebanon, his political future, and that of his family’s vast business interests, Hariri handed MBS an all-is-forgiven Twitter PR coup. On May 6, the Lebanese electorate will have a say about whether or not they appreciated that gesture.

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