Hariri announces return to Lebanon as crisis simmers
PARIS/RIYADH – Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he will return to Lebanon for Wednesday’s Independence Day celebrations and explain his situation, after his shock resignation announcement in Saudi Arabia sparked political turmoil.
Speaking after talks in Paris on Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking to broker a way out of the crisis, Hariri said he would “make known my position” once back in Beirut.
“As you know I have resigned, and we will discuss that in Lebanon,” he said told reporters, saying he needed to meet with President Michel Aoun before taking further steps.
Hariri’s announcement follows two weeks of deep uncertainty after his surprise decision to step down on November 4. His failure to return to Lebanon since then sparked rumours that he was being held in Riyadh against his will, which both he and Saudi officials denied.
“To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie,” he said in a Twitter post just before flying to Paris overnight.
Hariri’s wife and eldest son Houssam joined him for lunch with Macron at the Elysee Palace, but their two younger children, who live in Saudi Arabia, have remained there “for their school exams”, a source close to the premier said.
“Hariri does not want to mix his children up in this affair,” the source said.
His mysterious decision to step down – which Aoun has refused to accept while Hariri remains abroad – has raised fears over Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
Hariri’s camp has sought to allay the concerns, with a source saying the premier had a “fruitful and constructive” meeting with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before leaving.
Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen who has previously enjoyed Riyadh’s backing, resigned saying he feared for his life. He accused Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising his country.
Hariri’s resignation was widely seen as an escalation of the battle for influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
His attempt to step down also coincides with a purge of more than 200 Saudi princes, ministers and businessmen.
Hariri met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh on Thursday as Paris, which held mandate power over Lebanon for the first half of the 20th century, seeks to ease the crisis.
Ahead of Hariri’s departure, Aoun – an ally of Hezbollah – welcomed the trip to Paris, expressing hope that it was the “start of a solution”. “If Mr Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely,” Aoun said.
“But his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government.”
In a related development, Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador to Berlin in protest over comments made by the German foreign minister perceived as suggesting Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri had been held against his will in Riyadh, Saudi state media said Saturday.
Riyadh’s state news agency SPA released a statement protesting comments on the crisis by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel calling for Lebanon’s neighbours – including Saudi Arabia – to let it decide its own fate.
“Saudi Arabia has decided to recall its ambassador to Germany for consultations and will give the German ambassador in the kingdom a letter protesting these unfortunate and unjustified statements,” SPA said, citing a spokesman for the Saudi foreign ministry.
Gabriel on Thursday said he shared the concern about the threat of instability and bloodshed in Lebanon and, without mentioning Saudi Arabia directly, warned against the “adventurism” behind the Lebanon crisis.
Earlier in the week Gabriel had said: “Lebanon has earned the right to decide on its fate by itself and not become a pinball of Syria or Saudi Arabia or other national interests”.
But according to SPA, a Saudi foreign ministry spokesman said: “These statements are dangerous, based on false information and do not help achieve stability in the region.
“These (statements) have astonished Saudi Arabia… which does not consider them representative of a friendly German government that is a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and to establish security in the region,” the spokesman added.
Germany’s foreign ministry had yet to comment on the row, but in a statement it welcomed Hariri’s “imminent return to Lebanon”.