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Did Kushner Keep Tillerson in the Dark on Saudi-Lebanon Move?

Efforts by Prince Salman to start a regional crisis backfired, but the drama has left the secretary of state seething.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has accomplished the impossible: he’s actually united Lebanon, though perhaps only briefly.  

The tale of how the 32-year-old bin Salman (or MbS, as he’s called), accomplished this is a tad complex, but it’s worth the telling. Earlier this month, on November 2, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the scion of the wealthy Hariri family (and the son of the much-admired Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut in 2005), received a telephone call in Beirut from a senior Saudi official directing him to fly immediately to Riyadh to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince. Hariri could hardly refuse: a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, Hariri’s family fortune (and funding for his Lebanese political party, the Future Movement) depended on Saudi largesse—so off he went.

The next day, Hariri cooled his heels for four hours waiting for MbS to meet with him, before being ushered into His Presence, where he was peremptorily directed to read a television statement announcing his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister and blaming Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, for plotting to destabilize his country and murder him. This was high drama, but lousy theatre: Hariri’s eyes shifted uncomfortably during his address, as if seeking approval from off-camera handlers that he was performing as expected. Hariri then popped up in Abu Dhabi, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, before returning to Riyadh, where he reassured the Lebanese public that he was sincere about resigning, hadn’t been detained against his will by the Saudis, and would soon return to Beirut.

Unfortunately for the Saudis, no one in Lebanon was buying it.

Within hours of Hariri’s address, officials of his Sunni-dominated Future Movement speculated that the prime minister was being held against his will, expressed doubts that his resignation was voluntary and pushed for his return. Several days later, Lebanese President Michel Aoun (a Maronite Christian), said that he believed the Saudis had “kidnapped” Hariri while Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite leader of the Iranian-aligned Party of God (Hezbollah), publicly described Hariri’s resignation as a “Saudi-imposed decision.” Banners began appearing in Beirut (“We Want Our PM Back”), and festooned the jerseys of runners participating in a Beirut marathon: “Running For Hariri.”

Hariri was suddenly Lebanon’s poster boy, a martyr-in-the-making. Which is to say that, within days of his resignation, it was clear that Saudi Arabia’s attempt to paint Hezbollah as “destabilizing Lebanon” had backfired: Mohammad bin Salman’s insistence that Hariri take a tougher stance against Iran and Hezbollah had made unlikely allies of Lebanon’s squabbling factions. Those plotting against Lebanon weren’t in Tehran, the Lebanese public decided, they were in Riyadh. But the Lebanese weren’t the only ones who weren’t buying the Saudi line. Neither was the U.S. State Department.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was accompanying the president during his Asia tour at the time of the Saudi-engineered initiative, was “completely blindsided” by the move, as several senior Middle East diplomats confirmed to TAC. While Tillerson would later be accused of being “totally disengaged” from the crisis, several former and current U.S. diplomats have told us that just precisely the opposite was the case. Tillerson, they say, had a “long and pointed discussion” on the Hariri situation with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on November 7, after having directed Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, David Satterfield, to “walk point” on the issue. Satterfield talked with Hariri’s aides in Beirut and told Christopher Henzel, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Saudi Arabia, to meet with Hariri in Riyadh. In Beirut, meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard was gathering information on the crisis from Lebanese officials and passing it back to Washington.

Tillerson’s initial reaction to the Hariri resignation was in keeping with his low-key approach. He gathered the facts, solicited advice, advised calm and held his temper. In private, however, Tillerson was seething. This was the second time in six months that the Saudis had taken a major diplomatic initiative without issuing a heads-up to the U.S.—a violation of the unwritten “no surprises” rule that is standard courtesy among close allies. The first surprise had come in June, when the Saudis broke off relations with Qatar and placed it under an economic embargo. The anti-Qatar move embarrassed the U.S., split the Gulf Cooperation Council and shattered U.S. efforts to forge a united anti-Iran Sunni bloc. And, as was the case with the Saudi-engineered Hariri resignation, the Qatar crisis had come with nary a warning from the Saudis to their most important ally.

But according to a senior Middle East diplomat with whom TAC spoke, Tillerson wasn’t only angered by Saudi Arabia’s failure to give the U.S. a heads-up on their Lebanon plans, he suspected that the White House knew of the plan for Hariri ahead of time, but failed to tell him. The culprit, as had been the case of the Qatar crisis, was Jared Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law, whose official role in the White House is described by an avalanche of titles that rivals anything given a Saudi royal: Senior Advisor to the President, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy, and Special Representative for International Negotiations. More crucially, Kushner is close to MbS, who Kushner had met with (ostensibly about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process), during an under-the-radar trip to the region at the end of October.

“Kushner and MbS aren’t just close, they’re very, very close,” the senior Middle East diplomat told TAC. “I suppose there’s an outside possibility that Kushner was as surprised about the Hariri move as Tillerson, but I really doubt it. It’s unimaginable that bin Salman didn’t tell Kushner what he was planning.” But this same diplomat dismissed the notion that bin Salman asked for Kushner’s approval of the Saudi initiative—that Kushner “green lighted” it. “That’s not the way this works,” he said. “I doubt that the Saudis needed a green light. They don’t think they need anyone’s permission to do what they want, they take it for granted that Kushner supports them. Their calculation is that he has more influence with the president than Rex Tillerson.”

In truth, this diplomat says, neither the U.S. nor Tillerson should have been surprised by the Saudi move—or MbS distaste for Saad Hariri. Tensions between the Lebanese prime minister and the Saudis had been festering since mid-May, when a Hariri-backed delegation of bankers arrived in Washington to lobby the Congress against imposing tough new sanctions on Lebanese financial institutions suspected of being affiliated with Hezbollah. Lebanese officials told members of Congress that increased regulatory pressure would damage Lebanon’s fragile banking sector and endanger its financial stability. Hariri himself appeared in Washington in July to buttress these efforts. As a result, Congress carefully dampened the impact of the proposed sanctions, fearing that any attempt to target Hezbollah would undermine the fragile Lebanese economy.  

“That was a final straw for the Saudis,” this diplomat says. “They were absolutely disgusted. As far as they were concerned, Hariri was caving in to the Iranians.” By the end of the summer, the Saudis were determined to get rid of the prime minister and replace him with his older brother, Bahaa, a Saudi resident and Saad competitor who has long wanted to replace his brother as head of the Future Movement. “This was a plot and months in the making,” a senior aide to Lebanese President Michel Aoun told The American Conservative in an email. “Saad refused to fall in line with Saudi Arabia’s plan to confront the Iranians. So MbS decided to make him pay.”

But Hariri had not only run afoul of Mohammed bin Salman, he’d also crossed Thamer Al Sabhan, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Gulf State Affairs, a fervid, and MbS partisan. At key points in the crisis, and even as Mohammed bin Salman remained silent, Al Sabhan had issued threats against Iran, Hezbollah—and Saad Hariri. His most outspoken public statement came in the midst of the Hariri crisis, on November 7—and was aimed at the Lebanese prime minister.

“We will treat the government in Lebanon as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hizbollah,” Al Sabhan told Al Arabiya, the Saudi owned news channel. It was an astonishing statement, and read in Washington as an “or else” threat against Hariri—he would resign his position and tow the Saudi line, “or else.” The problem for Al Sabhan, and for the Saudis, is that the more reckless their rhetoric became, the more the Lebanese dug in their heels. “The Saudi mistake was in thinking that we’d roll over,” this officials says. “We didn’t.”

Nor did Rex Tillerson. On November 10, the State Department issued a press statement under Tillerson’s name (“On The Situation In Lebanon”), supporting Hariri (“We respect Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri as a strong partner of the United States.”), at the same time that it took a swipe at Iran—and the Saudis. “The United States cautions against any party, within or outside Lebanon,” the statement read, “using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country.”

November 10, as it turns out, marked the most significant moment in the Hariri crisis. On the day the Tillerson statement was issued, Tillerson’s point man on the issue, David Satterfield, had a meeting with Thamer Al Sabhan at the State Department. Al Sabhan was in Washington for meetings, which included one at the White House. The Satterfield-Al Sabhan meeting did not go well, according to the senior diplomat with whom we spoke. In fact, the description is an understatement.

“The meeting was ugly, confrontational,” a former ambassador who received a “read out of the meeting” explained to us. “Satterfield laid down the law—the U.S. did not support the Saudi initiative, thought that what the Saudis were doing was destabilizing, wanted Saad to remain as prime minister and would not support Bahaa as his replacement.” This senior diplomat says that Satterfield was “dismissive” of the Saudi attempt to shift the mantle of the Future Movement onto Bahaa’s shoulders. “Satterfield made it clear that the U.S. didn’t think that Bahaa was up to the job,” then added his own judgment: “He’s unpredictable, lazy.”

In the days following the Satterfield-Al Sabhan meeting, the Hariri crisis has subsided.Denying that he was detained against his will by the Saudis, Hariri arrived in Paris on Saturday, where met with French President Emmanuel Macron, then made his way to Beirut via Cairo on Wednesday. His return was triumphant. He appeared at a military parade marking his country’s independence, spoke to cheering crowds outside of his home – and all but renounced his Riyahd decision to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister. “I offered my resignation to President Aoun and he asked me to delay presenting it, to allow for more consultations and deliberations, and I agreed to his request,” Hariri said.

The unlikely hero in all of this might well be Rex Tillerson, who quietly engineered a U.S. policy at odds with the views of Donald Trump—and his son-in-law. The exact details of how Tillerson pulled this off remain unknown (“I think Tillerson just told Trump what he was going to do,” the senior diplomat with whom we spoke speculates, “and then just did it.”), even as the odds against him mount: he remains the target of former and current State Department officials for failing to fill empty Foggy Bottom offices, remains the object of rumors that he will be replaced, is widely disliked by reporters covering the State Department for his detachment (and for refusing to approve reporters’ requests to travel with him), and is regularly dismissed in the diplomatic community for his style—for what is described as his “vanishing act” on foreign policy issues.  

More crucially, Tillerson’s views are sharply at odds with a White House that has shown a willingness to take Saudi claims at face value. Which means that what was obvious in June, when the Saudis purposely shattered the Arab world’s united Sunni front against Iran, is even more obvious now—in the midst of the Hariri crisis. “The U.S. is running two foreign policies in the Middle East,” the senior diplomat with whom we spoke says. “There’s a White House foreign policy that’s in the hands of Jared Kushner and another that is being engineered by Rex Tillerson.” And which foreign policy will prevail? The question brought a laugh from the senior diplomat. It’s not really that hard to figure out,” he said. “Rex Tillerson will be secretary of state until he decides not to be—or gets fired. But Jared Kushner will probably be the president’s son-in-law forever.”

Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst, a regular contributor to The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars, which was released in October. He tweets @markperrydc