I'm returning to Beirut, Lebanese PM says in Paris

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (second from left in picture), his wife Lara and their son Hussan with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte at the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday. Mr Hariri accused Iran and its powerful Leba
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (second from left in picture), his wife Lara and their son Hussan with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte at the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday. Mr Hariri accused Iran and its powerful Lebanese militia ally Hizbollah of destabilising his country.PHOTO: REUTERS

Once back this week, he will meet President before stating his position on crisis

PARIS • Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said he plans to return to Beirut on Wednesday after a two-week absence sparked concern that his country may once again turn into a battleground for a showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Mr Hariri, 47, has been away from Lebanon since his shock resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia on Nov 4, which sparked fears of an escalating regional conflict between the kingdom and Iran. 

He said he feared for his life, accusing Iran and its powerful Lebanese militia ally Hizbollah of destabilising his country.

Yesterday, he said he would return to Lebanon to take part in Independence Day celebrations, which commemorates the end of France's mandate in the country in 1943.

He added that he would announce his position on the crisis after holding talks with President Michel Aoun.

"With regard to the political situation in Lebanon, I will go to Beirut in the coming days, I will participate in the independence celebrations, and it is there that I will make known my position on these subjects after meeting President Aoun," Mr Hariri said in Paris after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron.

Mr Hariri is in the French capital at the invitation of Mr Macron, who is attempting to help broker a solution to the political crisis. Mr Aoun, who has refused to accept Mr Hariri's resignation unless it is tendered on Lebanese soil, has welcomed the Paris trip.

Mr Macron greeted Mr Hariri - who has deep connections with France - warmly as he arrived for talks at the Elysee Palace hours after flying in from Riyadh with his wife.

Mr Hariri, who along with Saudi officials has repeatedly denied he was being held under de facto house arrest in Riyadh, said in a Twitter post just before his departure: "To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie."

A source close to Mr Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen who has previously enjoyed Riyadh's backing, said the premier had held an "excellent, fruitful and constructive" meeting with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before he left.

Mr Hariri's resignation was widely seen as an escalation of the battle for influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, arch-rivals 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 princes, ministers and businessmen in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Macron, who met Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, said last week that the two agreed that Mr Hariri "be invited for several days to France". The prince will visit France early next year.

Mr Hariri - whose father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hizbollah - took over last year as head of a shaky national unity government which includes the powerful Shi'ite movement.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has insisted that "unless Hizbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hizbollah and, by extension, Iran".

In another development, Riyadh yesterday recalled its ambassador to Berlin in protest against comments by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel which were interpreted as a suggestion that Mr Hariri acted under Saudi orders.

Germany's Foreign Ministry had yet to comment on the row, but in a statement it welcomed Mr Hariri's "imminent return to Lebanon".

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline 'I'm returning to Beirut, Lebanese PM says in Paris'. Print Edition | Subscribe