Summary: Hariri still detained in Riyadh, next moves uncertain. Another own goal by Saudi Arabia following the dispute with Qatar.
In our posting of 9 November we quoted some evidence that the resignation of Saad Hariri announced on 4 November in Riyadh was not what it seemed, made under some degree of duress.
According to a Washington Post report (other reports have the same story with minor variations) he had gone to Saudi Arabia on 30 October for a personal meeting with MBS and the Minister for relations with Arab states Thamir al-Sabhan, which seemed to go well. Back in Lebanon on 1 November he briefed Lebanese ministers on various positive agreements reached and said Lebanon would not be a Saudi target.
He then received an urgent call to see MBS again on Friday 3 November. He flew back to Riyadh after telling officials he would see them at the weekend in Sharm al-Sheikh where he was due to meet President Sisi; according to Robert Fisk he had also scheduled meetings in Beirut the following Monday with the IMF, the World Bank and on water quality.
The Friday meeting with MBS didn’t happen, but on Saturday morning he was summoned from his Riyadh residence; “The trappings of protocol were gone… He was out of sight for several hours.”
According to Reuters his telephone was confiscated. He next appeared on TV at about 2 p.m. reading his resignation speech, apparently pre-recorded, using language which as we commented on 9 November was uncharacteristic for him. At the same time he telephoned the Lebanese President Michel Aoun and said he couldn’t continue as Prime Minister and would be returning to Beirut in a few days.
The next two nights he reportedly spent at the Ritz-Carlton where the Saudis detained in the anti-graft campaign are held. On Monday he met King Salman and then travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid. On Tuesday he was back In his Riyadh residence “screened by Saudi military security”, where he met US, Russian and European diplomats over the next few days.
Lebanese sources believe Hariri’s harder-line older brother Bahaa may be Riyadh’s candidate for prime minister. Members of the Hariri family have been asked to go to Saudi Arabia to pledge allegiance to him but have refused.
On 10 November President Aoun called on Saudi Arabia to explain why Hariri could not return home. He told foreign ambassadors that Hariri had been kidnapped.
Yesterday 12 November Hariri gave a TV interview in Riyadh, speaking with hesitation and appearing as he spoke to be looking at an off screen presence. He said that he would return home “in days” and formally submit his resignation. He also said that if he was to rescind his resignation Hizbullah must respect Lebanon’s policy of staying out of regional conflicts. He insisted that he was free to travel. According to a New Yorker report some Lebanese channels refused to air the interview because of suspicion that he was speaking under duress. Also according to the New Yorker politicians from across Lebanon’s 18 sects have expressed suspicions about Hariri’s reported detention; yesterday 12 November “Beirut’s annual marathon turned into a kind of liberation rally for Hariri. Thousands of runners and spectators from different sects carried ‘Waiting for you’ signs… Hariri had run in previous marathons.”
On 7 November President Trump tweeted that he had “great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.” The US charge d’affaires in Riyadh met Hariri on 8 November. Announcing this the State Department spokeswoman said on 9 November “I cannot provide you with a readout of that conversation or any specifics of it, but we have seen him. In terms of the conditions of him being held or the conversations between Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister Hariri, I would have to refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia and also to Mr. Hariri’s office”, adding only that she did not know personally where he was, and that the matter had been discussed between Rex Tillerson and the Saudi Foreign Minister.
On 10 November Tillerson told the press there was no indication that Hariri had been detained against his will, and he had been assured by the Saudi Foreign Minister on 7 November that the decision to resign was taken solely by Hariri. Tillerson added that Hariri needed to go back to Lebanon to make the resignation official.
On the same day he issued a press statement recognising Hariri as Prime Minister and a “strong partner of the United States” and supporting the sovereignty, independence and stability of Lebanon. “There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state – which must be recognized as the sole authority for security in Lebanon. The United States cautions against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country.”
The French government, which has historical ties as the former colonial power, reaffirmed its “strong commitment” to Lebanon’s unity, sovereignty and stability on 8 November. President Macron paid an unscheduled visit to Saudi Arabia on 9 November. A press release from the Élysée says that his talks with MBS emphasised the same points, and on 10 November he emphasised them again directly to President Aoun (unlike US and British statements, the French texts do not explicitly recognise Hariri as Prime Minister).
On 12 November Boris Johnson told the Lebanese Foreign Minister that the UK fully supported the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon. “Prime Minister Hariri has been a good and trusted partner for the UK, and we hope that he will return to Beirut without further delay… We echo the concerns of the United States and our European partners that Lebanon should not be used as a tool for proxy conflicts, and that its independence and integrity should be respected by all parties – within the country and beyond.” The Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a similar statement on 7 November.
Today 13 November the head of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, the Cardinal Patriarch Bechara Al-Ra’i, leaves for a visit to Riyadh at the invitation of King Salman and MBS. He is to be visited by Hariri and will ask him about the reasons behind his resignation. According to his spokesman “The visit has two sides: It is a dialogue and a communication visit for a man of peace. The patriarch represents all the Patriarchs and Christians of the East. He will carry a message of love and openness to Saudi Arabia, which is now witnessing further openness and positive changes.” But asked about Hariri’s resignation he said “The patriarch will not interfere in the political matter. The Lebanese State should handle this issue and not the patriarch.” The Cardinal has a record of controversy; in 2014 he visited the occupied territories with the protection of the IDF.
Although much is still to be explained, it seems clear that Hariri’s resignation was imposed on him by Saudi Arabia, no longer willing to accept that the government of Lebanon has no alternative to including Hizbullah. As in the case of the Qatar vs. four dispute, there seems to be no clear objective or end-game, and precious little support except from the UAE, such other governments as are more or less Saudi clients, and perhaps the erratic President Trump.
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