Lebanese President hopes Hariri visit to France will end crisis

Offer is seen as way out for him to leave Saudi Arabia without any side losing face

BEIRUT/PARIS • Lebanon's President said yesterday he hoped the crisis over Mr Saad al-Hariri's resignation as prime minister and stay in Saudi Arabia would end with Mr Hariri making a visit to France.

On Wednesday, France invited Mr Hariri and his family to Paris, providing what French diplomats have described as a way out for him to leave Saudi Arabia without any side losing face.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said earlier this week that Mr Hariri, who abruptly announced his resignation while in Saudi Arabia on Nov 4, was being held hostage by Riyadh.

The crisis has embroiled Lebanon in the Middle East's bitter rivalry that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran that includes the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizbollah group.

"We hope the crisis is over and the door of solution is opened by PM Hariri's acceptance of the invitation to visit France," Mr Aoun said in a tweet yesterday.

"The problem of Hariri's being held in Saudi Arabia is on its way to being solved," presidential sources also quoted Mr Aoun as saying.

After meeting Mr Hariri in Riyadh yesterday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Mr Hariri would "soon come to Paris".

SAUDI ARABIA'S STAND

If Lebanon is able to stifle the role of Hizbollah, Lebanon will be fine. But if Hizbollah continues this policy and this approach, it will continue to destabilise Lebanon.

SAUDI FOREIGN MINISTER ADEL AL-JUBEIR

A source close to Mr Hariri said he was expected to leave Riyadh with his family for Paris within 48 hours, before going to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia last week accused Lebanon of declaring war on it, citing Hizbollah's role in other Arab countries. The group has fought alongside Iran in Syria against Saudi-backed rebels. Riyadh also accuses it of helping the Houthi group in Yemen fight a Saudi-led coalition.

"If Lebanon is able to stifle the role of Hizbollah, Lebanon will be fine. But if Hizbollah continues this policy and this approach, it will continue to destabilise Lebanon," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said yesterday.

Western states have taken a markedly different tone from Riyadh, stressing their support for both Mr Hariri and the Beirut government even though they see Hizbollah as a terrorist group.

Lebanon's army is a significant recipient of US military aid.

Mr Hariri has long been allied to Saudi Arabia. He travelled there on Nov 3 and suddenly resigned the following day. He has since left Riyadh only for an hours-long visit to Saudi Arabia's Gulf ally the UAE on Nov 7.

His resignation while abroad, alleging a plot against his life and railing against Iran and Hizbollah, led to speculation in Beirut about Saudi Arabia's role in the decision.

Top Lebanese officials and senior politicians close to Mr Hariri say he was forced to quit and was being held by the Saudis. Politicians from all sides in Lebanon have called for his return to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia has denied forcing him to resign or detaining him.

Mr Hariri himself has said he is free to leave and would return soon to formally submit his resignation, which Mr Aoun has said he will accept only in person.

He said in a statement that once Mr Hariri returns to Lebanon, he would have to stay until a new government was formed.

In his first public comments since resigning, Mr Hariri on Sunday warned of possible Saudi action against Lebanon, including the risk of Arab sanctions and threats to the livelihood of Lebanese workers in the Gulf.

Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees and its stability is seen internationally as important to prevent further Middle East chaos.

France is closely allied to both Saudi Arabia and to Lebanon, which it controlled between the world wars last century. Mr Hariri has a home in Paris and lived there for years.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'Lebanese President hopes Hariri visit to France will end crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe