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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Lebanon's Hariri in first Saudi visit since 'resignation'

PM met and was pictured with King Salman 

Saudi Arabia's King Salman welcomes Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 28, 2018. Saudi Press Agency / Handout via Reuters
Saudi Arabia's King Salman welcomes Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 28, 2018. Saudi Press Agency / Handout via Reuters

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri visited Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for the first time since his abrupt resignation during a visit there in November set off a major political crisis.

Officials in Beirut said at the time that Riyadh had forced its long-time ally Hariri to quit and put him under house arrest because it had lost patience with his political arrangement with the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.

Mr Hariri returned home weeks later and withdrew his resignation, drawing a line under the crisis that had raised fears for his country's economic and political stability.

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Mr Hariri, whose coalition government includes Hezbollah, flew to Saudi Arabia late on Tuesday, taking up an invitation from King Salman that was delivered to him by a Saudi envoy in Beirut on Monday.

The Lebanese premier met King Salman during his visit, discussing Saudi-Lebanese relations, Saudi state news agency SPA said.

Saudi Arabia accuses the heavily armed Hezbollah militia of waging war across the Middle East as agents of Iran.

Photos and videos circulated of the king and Mr Hariri drinking coffee and smiling in the royal Al Yamama palace.

Mr Hariri became prime minister in 2016 in a political deal that made Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun head of state.

Wednesday's meeting was attended by Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef and Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, among others, SPA reported. It did not say if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was present.

Mr Hariri's office had previously said he would meet with the Crown Prince as well as the king.

Lebanon declared its policy of "dissociation" in 2012 to keep the deeply divided state out of regional conflicts such as the war in neighbouring Syria. The stance was reiterated by the government when Mr Hariri returned to Beirut.

In an interview with Lebanese television station MTV's "Ring the Bell" programme on Monday, Mr Hariri said he delivered his resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia instead of Lebanon to be more "dramatic".

"I saw that there was a big problem for Lebanon so I decided to take the ball and whistle and get out of the court," Mr Hariri said.

"I was afraid for the country and I had to make a positive shock to unite it."

Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, also a Hezbollah ally, said he had heard "very positive talk" from the Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula about Lebanon and "its historical and civilised role" during his visit to Beirut this week, a statement from Mr Berri's office said.

Lebanon will hold legislative elections on May 6, the country's first since 2009.