BEIRUT (AFP) - An invitation to France may provide Lebanon's resigned prime minister Saad Hariri with a way out of Saudi Arabia, but it could also spell the end of his political career, experts say.
French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have come to Hariri's rescue with the invitation, which comes after great speculation about whether the premier was being detained in Saudi Arabia after his surprise resignation delivered there Nov 4.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun has even gone so far as to refer to the resigned prime minister as a "hostage" despite Hariri repeatedly denying claims of his detention.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Thursday that Hariri was free to leave Saudi "when he pleases", in the first statement by a high-ranking Saudi official on the issue.
Hariri's resignation was quickly perceived as the latest round in a tug of war between Saudi Arabia, his longtime sponsor, and its regional arch-rival Iran.
It has raised deep concerns about the stability of Lebanon, which has long been riven by disagreements between Hariri's bloc and that of his chief rival, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
"Even if it doesn't resolve the base of the problem, the French offer... allows both the Saudi authorities and Saad Hariri to save face," Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs, told AFP.
The French-language daily L'Orient Le Jour said France had "achieved the unexpected by inviting Hariri" to leave Riyadh, where his family is also staying.
"The exit proposed by the French president... has lowered tensions a notch," the daily said on Thursday.
"A French way out," added the An Nahar daily, while Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is highly critical of Hariri, said in a front page headline "Aoun and Macron free the prime minister".
Exile, or just a layover?
While the invitation may have eased some of the tensions caused by the usual circumstances of Hariri's resignation, it has also raised questions about his future.
Macron was quick to dismiss speculation that Hariri was going into "exile" in France, but there has also been no confirmation that Paris will simply be a waystation en route back to Lebanon.
Hariri has for days insisted he is free to move and will soon return to Lebanon, but has shown little sign yet that he will be coming back soon.
"The fact that the Elysee was forced to deny that it would be an exile says a lot about the spy novel aspects of this exfiltration," said Bitar.
"Paradoxically, it reinforces the suspicions of those who think that Saad Hariri is indeed a man under very intense pressure," he added.
Amal Saad, a political science professor at the Lebanese University, said Hariri's trip to Paris could either signal the end of his political career and a period of exile, or a move to return to Lebanon to negotiate with his arch-rival Hezbollah.
"Its 50 per cent, 50 per cent, it could go either way," she told AFP.
The trip could indicate that "in exchange for his family's freedom and his own political freedom, he would have to resign from political life altogether," she said.
"On the other hand, is Paris going to be used as a stop only, then will he come to Beirut and negotiate some kind of deal with the president, with Hezbollah?" In the only interview he has given since his resignation, Hariri said Sunday that he would only reverse his decision to step down if Hezbollah pledged to end its involvements in conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
'Impulsive' Saudi moves
Hariri's resignation has been largely seen as forced upon him by Saudi officials intent on protesting Iranian "domination" of Lebanon via their proxy Hezbollah.
But the strategy may have backfired.
"Saudi Arabia loses," read an Al-Akhbar headline on Thursday.
According to Saad, the Saudi authorities have "stripped him (Hariri) of his power" but this has given him "another kind of power...popular legitimacy that he didn't formerly have".
There has been a groundswell of support among many Lebanese for Hariri since his shock resignation from Riyadh.
"This affair illustrates well the often counter-productive nature of their (Saudi) reactions," said Bitar.
"Their desire to counter Iranian influence does not seem to be accompanied by any clear and thoughtful strategy," he added, underlining the "impulsiveness" of Saudi leaders.
In Lebanon, the crisis has proved shocking even to a population virtually innured to such things.
"It's not conventional politics anymore," said Saad, referring to the situation as "unprecedented".
Aoun repeated Thursday that he was waiting for Hariri's return to the country before deciding whether to accept his resignation.
But "the institutional crisis could last much longer in the absence of a return to a modus vivendi between the Iranians and the Saudis," said Bitar.