Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose current disposition and future plans have been the cause of a major political crisis in Lebanon, has reportedly accepted an invitation to fly from Saudi Arabia to Paris, and then return to Beirut to formally tender his resignation.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed Hariri’s travel plans on Thursday, and said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also been “informed.”
Accusations have been leveled, perhaps most notably by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, that the Saudis forced Hariri to resign and has been held under house arrest in Riyadh. The French, who have a long history in Lebanon, have been attempting to dispel that notion by sending officials to visit with Hariri in Riyadh, and then by inviting him to visit France.
Le Drian stressed that Hariri is free to travel “when he wants,” a point echoed by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who was appearing with Le Drian at a joint press appearance in Riyadh. Jubeir said reports that Hariri was under arrest are “false.”
“Hariri lives in the kingdom by his own will and he resigned. Regarding his return to Lebanon, it is up to him and his assessment to the security situation,” Jubeir insisted. Hariri has dual citizenship with Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, owns the house in Riyadh where he is currently staying, and was actually born in Saudi Arabia.
The BBC reports that France actually wanted Hariri to return to Beirut right away, but “for the moment that option is unacceptable to the Saudis.” The report does not go into detail about exactly why the Saudis want him to visit France first.
When asked about the precise dates of Hariri’s arrival and his schedule for meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who personally issued the invitation for a French visit, Le Drian said simply, “Mr. Hariri’s schedule is a matter for Mr. Hariri.”
Naturally, there is speculation France is quietly offering Hariri a path into exile, a possibility President Macron explicitly denied to reporters when he insisted Hariri would only be staying for “a few days.”.
The New York Times sussed out a clue by noting that Saad Hariri’s older brother Bahaa just issued his first public statement since Saad stepped down, thanking Saudi Arabia for its “decades of support” and saying he, like the Saudis, is concerned about Iran and its proxy Hezbollah taking over Lebanon.
“He appeared to be signaling that he was willing to toe the Saudi line, perhaps more enthusiastically than his brother, who Riyadh wanted to take a more confrontational approach to Hezbollah,” the Times speculates.
Cutting to the chase, skeptics of the official storyline on Saad Hariri wonder why Macron had to speak to the Saudis before publicly offering a French getaway to the Lebanese prime minister, why he had to dispatch Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Riyadh on a previously unscheduled trip, why the Saudis do not want him to return to Lebanon directly, and why Hariri’s family was pointedly included in Macron’s invitation—a detail that seems intended to counter speculation that the Saudis might let Hariri travel but hold his family hostage. Knowing how much pressure is building in Lebanon makes any delay in Hariri’s return seem unnecessarily provocative, assuming he really is going to return.