By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Saudi Arabia’s minister of Gulf Affairs called on October 30th for Hezbollah to be “toppled” in Lebanon. “Those who believe that my tweets are a personal stance are delusional and they will see what will happen in the coming days,” al-Sabhan said in an interview according to a report. For a while he has been describing Hezbollah as the “party of satan,” a riff on it’s actual name which is “the party of God.”
Al-Sabhan is increasingly one of the important faces of Saudi Arabia, a man whose comments are a kind of trial balloon or bellwether for future policy. He has become increasingly high profile as the Kingdom is shaking up its foreign policy and detaining princes. On Kalam al-Nass, Lebanon’s political talk show, Sabhan “claimed that there is no difference between Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. In response to the host’s question on whether there will be a broad anti-terrorism international coalition against Hezbollah, he said that the roots of terrorism lie within the Islamic Republic of Iran alone,” reports Al-Jazeera. He has condemned Hezbollah as terrorists and said “there will be no ‘Sunni’ ‘legitimacy for any government that includes Hezbollah ministers in the future.”
His twitter account is influential, with some 400,000 followers. Writers in the region pay attention to what he is saying and comment on it. The Hariri episode has brought him more into the international spotlight, where before he was more a regional figure. He was in the news in 2016 as Saudi Arabia ambassador in Iraq when he condemned Shia militias and there were warnings, as with Hariri, of a plot to attack the Saudi embassy. “Iran masterminded a plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to Baghdad Thamer al-Sabhan and entrusted the implementation of this plot to Iraqi Shiite militias affiliated with Iran,” a report noted. I noted this in a piece in August.
Of great interest was his visit in October to Raqqa where he met with the local council and discussed ways Saudi Arabia might invest in rebuilding. I profiled this in a piece on October 31. What is the Gulf Affairs minister doing in Syria and discussing Lebanon. Clearly he has become the man at the center of various Saudi policies and its attempt to confront Iran in the region. When he was named Gulf Affairs minister Sabhan told Asharq al-Awsat “that political files in – Gulf and Countries overlooking it – will be on top of his tasks in his new position during the upcoming period. Sabhan, who was the Saudi ambassador to Iraq since 2015 until the appointment, considered his new missions a huge responsibility, stressing that he will work hard to fulfill the political leadership orientations.”
In October he tweeted: “Is it possible that the world can be satisfied with the existence of ISIS and al-Qaeda within the parliaments and governments of countries? The world must unite against all the parties of evil.”
On November 7th Al-Arabiya highlighted his comments on Hezbollah. “We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah,” he said.
What comes next for the influential minister may be an increasing role in the region and in Saudi Arabia policy. He is worth following and looking to for indications on Saudi’s next moves in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.