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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Hariri has audience with King Salman after resigning as Lebanese PM

Hizbollah leader criticises Saudi role in Lebanese politics

Saudi Arabia's King Salman meets outgoing Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh on November 6, 2017. Saudi Press Agency via AP
Saudi Arabia's King Salman meets outgoing Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh on November 6, 2017. Saudi Press Agency via AP

Saad Hariri met Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh on Monday, two days after he announced his resignation as Lebanese prime minister from the Saudi capital.

Mr Hariri and the Saudi ruler discussed the situation in Lebanon during their meeting, which was attended by interior minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, minister of state for Arab Gulf affairs Thamer Al Sabhan and minister of state and cabinet member Musaed Al Aiban, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Mr Hariri’s announcement on Saturday has been read by some in Lebanon as having been demanded by the Saudi government as a response to Iran’s influence in Lebanon.

However, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir dismissed those claims on Monday.

"It’s his business," he told CNN. "We supported him becoming prime minister, we supported the policies he wanted to implement, but Hizbollah put roadblocks in his way."

Asked whether Mr Hariri was free to leave Saudi Arabia, Mr Al Jubeir said he was a Lebanese-Saudi citizen and could leave whenever he wanted.

Saudi Arabia has long been a backer of Lebanon's Sunni community and of Mr Hariri, whose family has close business and personal ties to the country.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun has not yet accepted the resignation, saying he was waiting for Mr Hariri to return to Lebanon. Mr Aoun held meetings with various Lebanese officials on Monday to discuss the situation.

It remained unclear when or whether Mr Hariri, who cited the threat of assassination among the reasons for his resignation, would return to Lebanon. He lived in self-exile in France and Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014, after his first term as prime minister ended.

However, Lebanese interior minister Nohad Machnouk told Reuters on Monday that he expected Mr Hariri would return to Beirut “within days”.

In his resignation speech, Mr Hariri made reference to the assassination of his father Rafik Hariri, who also served two terms as Lebanon’s prime minister and was killed in a massive bombing in Beirut in 2005.

Mr Hariri also strongly criticised Hizbollah and its ties to Iran, a departure from the measured language he has used in the past year as he led a consensus government that included members of the Shiite movement.

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Mr Hariri's resignation appeared to surprise his inner circle, and his supporters, as well as many critics, decried what they saw as heavy-handed Saudi involvement in Lebanese politics. But he had already been losing popularity, even among his core constituency, said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.

“Hariri's political capital inside the Lebanese Sunni community had already taken a serious hit — partly because he was perceived as unable to stand up to Hizbollah and Aoun,” Ms Slim said. “For many Sunnis, the clumsy way with which the resignation was delivered and its timing are raising a lot of suspicion as to the real motive.”

On Sunday, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for calm while blaming Saudi Arabia for Mr Hariri's resignation.

"The shape of the resignation proves that Hariri was forced to do so and that the resignation was a Saudi decision,” Mr Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

“Up till now, nobody knows what really happened,” he said. “We, the Lebanese, know each side’s rhetoric, and the statement read by Hariri in the video represents the Saudi rhetoric and not that of Hariri.”

Mr Hariri’s supporters also acknowledged the Saudi government’s apparent role in Mr Hariri’s decision.

“Lebanon cannot be against the Gulf countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has never skimped in helping Lebanon and standing by its side in the most difficult circumstances,” said Khaled Moussa, a journalist at Al Mustaqbal, a newspaper founded by Rafik Hariri.

Echoing Mr Hariri, Mr Moussa also identified Iran’s support for Hizbollah as part of the reason Mr Hariri resigned.

“Iran has contributed to strengthening the state within the state,” he said, referring to Hizbollah’s ability to act independently of the Lebanese government. Hizbollah is the only political faction in Lebanon that still possesses weapons, a longstanding grievance for many Lebanese. “Lebanon cannot be ruled this way.”

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