Summary: Hariri leaves Riyadh for Paris, then home by way of Egypt and Cyprus. His resignation suspended. Outcome remains opaque. Saudi responsibility.
The story of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been described by old-school commentators as an odyssey, fair enough except that Odysseus took ten years to reach home, not 17 days, and his story had a happy ending whereas no ending of the Hariri story is yet in sight.
In our posting of 13 November we quoted evidence that Hariri was under some degree of duress in Riyadh. From Riyadh he went to Paris on 19 November at the invitation of President Macron. He flew from Paris to Cairo where he met President Sisi on 21 November, on the same evening to Nicosia for a meeting with President Anastasiades of Cyprus, and home to Lebanon that night in time to pray at his father’s grave. The next day 22 November was Lebanese national day.
Not much has been revealed about these stopovers. According to a Reuters commentator “Macron’s maneuver, which came after a visit to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a flurry of calls, appears to have taken the foreign ministry by surprise, an example of his penchant for bypassing state organs to show he’s in charge, much like former leader Nicolas Sarkozy. ‘So far it’s a symbolic victory for French diplomacy that has enabled a reduction in tensions,’ said Stephane Malsagne, a lecturer at Sciences Po University in Paris, adding it was a ‘risky gamble’ that could antagonize all sides.”
In Cairo Hariri thanked Egypt and Sisi for their support of Lebanon and its stability and discussed the need to “distance Lebanon from regional policies”; Sisi stressed “the need for all parties in Lebanon to reach a consensus, elevate national interests and reject foreign interference in Lebanese internal affairs.” According to Cypriot sources the meeting in Nicosia was at Hariri’s request, lasted 45 minutes, and “a very substantive discussion took place”; Cyprus said on 22 November that Anastasiades would “take some initiatives” towards the EU and neighbouring states try to help defuse the crisis in Lebanon.
On 20 November, before Hariri’s return, in a statement appearing to defend Hizbullah after an Arab league statement accused it of terrorism President Michel Aoun said “Israeli targeting still continues and it is the right of the Lebanese to resist it and foil its plans by all available means.”
“I am staying with you and will continue with you…to be a line of defence for Lebanon, Lebanon’s stability and Lebanon’s Arabism.” He was “the star of the annual military parade through the capital, with former and current presidents and ministers all turning out to welcome him back.” On television he said all Lebanese sides must commit to keeping the country out of regional conflicts. Hizbullah’s regional military role has greatly alarmed Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s long-time ally. “I presented today my resignation to President Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness.”
It seems clear that Hariri made his resignation statement in Riyadh under duress, and that whatever the original Saudi intention was, possibly linked to the anti-graft campaign which involved some of Hariri’s business partners, international pressure initially from France (see link and link) led to his release (his decision to put his resignation on hold is described in the Saudi Arab News with remarkable chutzpah as “a positive outcome of Saudi Arabia’s high-octane diplomacy.”)
A series of tweets about his intentions now leave us none the wiser. His wife and two children remain in Riyadh.
It is noteworthy that there has been little or no criticism of Saudi Arabia, although according to Reuters “For some Lebanese, the latest chapter in their turbulent history carries echoes of its independence in 1943, when France arrested the president and prime minister. International pressure and popular protests eventually forced their release.”