Lebanese Prime Minister Meets Macron After Mysterious Saudi Stay

Questions are swirling about why Saad Hariri spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia, where he announced his resignation.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon, who has announced his resignation, with President Emmanuel Macron of France, at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Saturday. Credit Benoit Tessier/Reuters

PARIS — Lebanon’s absent prime minister arrived in France on Saturday morning after two weeks in Saudi Arabia, a mysterious stay that touched off intense speculation that he was being held against his will.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, who has not publicly explained the nature of his stay in Saudi Arabia, met with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for lunch at the Élysée Palace and confirmed that he would travel to Beirut later in the week.

The meeting with Mr. Macron came hours after a phone call between Mr. Macron and the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, the French president’s office said. Officials said that Mr. Aoun had thanked Mr. Macron for “France’s actions in favor of Lebanon” and confirmed that Mr. Hariri would be in Beirut for Lebanon’s Independence Day holiday, which is Wednesday.

Mr. Hariri later said in statements to the news media that he would announce his position on the crisis in his country after holding talks with Mr. Aoun.

“As you know, I have resigned and we will speak about this matter there,” Mr. Hariri told reporters, referring to Lebanon, as he was leaving the Élysée Palace, where he met with Mr. Macron for over 30 minutes, before gathering for lunch with his wife, their oldest son and Mr. Macron’s wife.

After the meeting, officials in the French president’s office announced that Mr. Macron was considering gathering in Paris the members of the United Nations International Support Group for Lebanon, although no specific date was given.

French officials refused to say whether Mr. Hariri had explained to Mr. Macron the reason for his mysterious stay in Saudi Arabia or the circumstances around the announcement of his resignation.

Mr. Hariri’s office said earlier on Saturday that his wife, Lara, and their son Houssam would be present at the lunch in the Lebanese prime minister’s honor at the Élysée Palace. Mr. Hariri’s wife had accompanied him on the flight from Saudi Arabia, and his son was said to have flown in from Britain.

Mr. Hariri’s two younger children, a 16-year-old daughter, Loulwa, and a 12-year-old son, Abdulaziz, did not appear in television footage of his arrival. The two have been attending school in Saudi Arabia and could have stayed behind for that reason, but their apparent absence was an obstacle to ending concerns that Mr. Hariri was not acting freely. It left room for speculation that the Saudis had pressured Mr. Hariri to leave them in the country as leverage.

Mr. Hariri announced on Nov. 4 from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that he was stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister, but officials in Lebanon have said that his departure would not take effect until he delivered his resignation in person in Beirut.

Mr. Hariri’s unexpected trip and resignation unsettled the Middle East, setting off a political crisis in Lebanon and even raising fears of war. Saudi Arabia was widely seen as pressuring Mr. Hariri to resign as part of its escalating regional feud with Iran and its effort to isolate Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that is part of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government.

Mr. Hariri said he feared for his safety in Lebanon.

With European diplomats scrambling to defuse the crisis, France seized the role of mediator. Mr. Macron made a surprise visit to Riyadh on Nov. 9. A week later, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, met Mr. Hariri in the Saudi capital.

Mr. Macron’s deputy adviser on diplomacy also traveled from Paris to Lebanon during the crisis, while Mr. Macron was having “direct and frequent” contacts with leaders in the region, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel, according to officials in the French president’s office.

France has strong ties to Lebanon, where it was a former colonial ruler, and to the Hariri family.

“It’s an occasion for France to show that it can be an intermediary and have a role in the crises of the Middle East,” Rima Tarabay, an adviser on European affairs for Mr. Hariri, said in a phone interview.

But Ms. Tarabay added that the crisis went beyond Mr. Hariri’s announced resignation, which has plunged the political situation of Lebanon in uncertainty.

“We are facing a very complex situation, not specifically tied to Saad’s personal issue, but regarding what is going to happen next,” Ms. Tarabay said, raising concerns about the potential “resurgence of violence in the region, and a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

At a European Union summit meeting on Friday, Mr. Macron told journalists that France did not want to choose sides in the Middle East, adding that “the role of France is to talk to everyone.” However, he urged Iran to pursue a “less aggressive regional strategy.”

On Saturday, Mr. Hariri met at his residence in France with two of his closest advisers, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk and Nader Hariri, a senior aide. Many of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers had been out of touch or only in rare contact with him during his Saudi stay.

At 1:10 a.m. on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hariri wrote on Twitter that he was “on the way to the airport.” His tweet mentioned Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister of Germany, who had asked whether the Saudis were holding Mr. Hariri.

Saudi Arabia later said on Saturday that it would formally protest Mr. Gabriel’s remarks and that it would recall its ambassador to Germany.

Mr. Hariri had arrived in Riyadh just as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, put many of the country’s most wealthy and powerful men, including some members of the royal family, under de facto arrest in what has been described as an anti-corruption sweep.

His visit also came as the Saudis accused Iran-backed rebels in Yemen of firing a missile at Riyadh. It was not clear if Mr. Hariri’s trip was related to these events.

In Lebanon, many questions remain, including whether Mr. Hariri will hand in his resignation or rescind it, and whether the government will be reorganized.

“The crisis of the resignation and Hariri’s return is now finished, but a political crisis has just begun,” Lebanon’s Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, said on Friday after news emerged that Mr. Hariri would fly to Paris.

Regardless of his next moves, Mr. Hariri will remain beholden to Saudi Arabia. His personal and family finances are deeply entwined with the country, which has also backed his party’s extensive political patronage network and media outlets. But the Saudi gambit to get him to take a more confrontational approach against Iran and Hezbollah could backfire.

Mr. Hariri could end up presiding over a caretaker government ahead of elections planned for next year. Analysts and diplomats said that Saudi Arabia was likely to gain little more than a renewed rhetorical commitment from all sides to Lebanese neutrality.

Tension had been building during the year since Mr. Hariri formed a national unity government in a deal that brought Mr. Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, to the presidency.

Hezbollah gained new power and weaponry while helping President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, another Iran ally, beat back insurgents. Mr. Aoun began signaling plans to normalize relations with the Syrian government, with members of his party even meeting with Syrian diplomats in New York during the annual General Assembly gatherings. That was too much for some of Mr. Hariri’s allies and supporters, and for Riyadh.

Mr. Hariri reached out to Jordan with a request to go to Amman as a safe haven, a Western official said. The request was denied, the official said, because the Saudis had pressured Jordan not to accept him.

Assessing what Mr. Hariri’s stay in France would mean for the situation going forward, an official in the French president’s office said the move would likely contribute to easing the current tensions in the region but without, he added, bringing them to a definitive conclusion.

Source: Lebanese Prime Minister Meets Macron After Mysterious Saudi Stay

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