How Saudi Ara­bia turned on Le­banon's Hariri

Stabroek News Sunday - - WORLD NEWS -

BEIRUT,(Reuters) - From the mo­ment Saad al-Hariri's plane touched down in Saudi Ara­bia on Fri­day Nov. 3, he was in for a sur­prise.

There was no line-up of Saudi princes or min­istry of­fi­cials, as would typ­i­cally greet a prime min­is­ter on an of­fi­cial visit to King Sal­man, se­nior sources close to Hariri and top Le­banese po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said. His phone was con­fis­cated, and the next day he was forced to re­sign as prime min­is­ter in a state­ment broad­cast by a Sau­diowned TV chan­nel.

The move thrust Le­banon back to the fore­front of a strug­gle that is re­shap­ing the Mid­dle East, be­tween the con­ser­va­tive Sunni monar­chy of Saudi Ara­bia and Shi'ite revo­lu­tion­ary Iran.

Their ri­valry has fuelled con­flicts in Iraq, Syria and Ye­men, where they back op­pos­ing sides, and now risks desta­bil­is­ing Le­banon, where Saudi has long tried to weaken the Iran­backed Hezbol­lah group, Le­banon's main po­lit­i­cal power and part of the rul­ing coali­tion.

Sources close to Hariri say Saudi Ara­bia has con­cluded that the prime min­is­ter - a long-time Saudi ally and son of late prime min­is­ter Rafik alHariri, who was as­sas­si­nated in 2005 - had to go be­cause he was un­will­ing to con­front Hezbol­lah.

Mul­ti­ple Le­banese sources say Riyadh hopes to re­place Saad Hariri with his older brother Ba­haa as Le­banon's top Sunni politi­cian. Ba­haa is be­lieved to be in Saudi Ara­bia and mem­bers of the Hariri fam­ily have been asked to travel there to pledge al­le­giance to him, but have re­fused, the sources say.

"When Hariri's plane landed in Riyadh, he got the mes­sage im­me­di­ately that some­thing was wrong," a Hariri source told Reuters. "There was no one was wait­ing for him."

Saudi Ara­bia has dis­missed sug­ges­tions it forced Hariri to re­sign and says he is a free man. Saudi of­fi­cials could not im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment on the cir­cum­stances of his ar­rival, whether his phone had been taken, or whether the King­dom was plan­ning to re­place him with his brother.

Hariri has given no pub­lic re­marks since he re­signed and no in­di­ca­tion of when he might re­turn to Le­banon.

"NO RE­SPECT" Hariri was sum­moned to the King­dom to meet Saudi King Sal­man in a phone call on Thurs­day night, Nov. 2.

Be­fore de­part­ing, he told his of­fi­cials they would re­sume their dis­cus­sions on Mon­day. He told his me­dia team he would see them at the week­end in the Red Sea re­sort of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he was due to meet Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Abdel Fat­tah alSisi on the side­lines of the World Youth Fo­rum.

Hariri went to his Riyadh home. His fam­ily made their for­tune in Saudi Ara­bia and have long had prop­er­ties there. The source close to Hariri said the Le­banese leader re­ceived a call from a Saudi pro­to­col of­fi­cial on Satur­day morn­ing, who asked him to at­tend a meet­ing with Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

He waited for about four hours be­fore be­ing pre­sented with his res­ig­na­tion speech to read on tele­vi­sion, the source said.

"From the mo­ment he ar­rived they (Saudis) showed no re­spect for the man," an­other se­nior Le­banese po­lit­i­cal source said.

Hariri fre­quently vis­its Saudi Ara­bia. On a trip a few days ear­lier, Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man had ar­ranged for him to see se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and Gulf Af­fairs Min­is­ter Thamer al-Sab­han, the Saudi point man on Le­banon.

Hariri came back from that trip to Beirut "pleased and re­laxed", sources in his en­tourage said. He posted a selfie with Sab­han, both of them smil­ing. He told aides he had heard "en­cour­ag­ing state­ments" from the crown prince, in­clud­ing a prom­ise to re­vive a Saudi aid pack­age for the Le­banese army.

The Hariri sources say Hariri be­lieved he had con­vinced Saudi of­fi­cials of the need to main­tain an en­tente with Hezbol­lah for the sake of Le­banon's sta­bil­ity.

Hezbol­lah has a heav­ily armed fight­ing force, in ad­di­tion to seats in par­lia­ment and gov­ern­ment. Saudibacked ef­forts to weaken the group in Le­banon a decade ago led to Sun­niShi'ite clashes and a Hezbol­lah takeover of Beirut.

"What hap­pened in those meet­ings, I be­lieve, is that (Hariri) revealed his po­si­tion on how to deal with Hezbol­lah in Le­banon: that con­fronta­tion would desta­bi­lize the coun­try. I think they didn't like what they heard," said one of the sources, who was briefed on the meet­ings.

The source said Hariri told Sab­han not to "hold us re­spon­si­ble for some­thing that is beyond my con­trol or that of Le­banon." But Hariri un­der­es­ti­mated the Saudi po­si­tion on Hezbol­lah, the source said.

"For the Saudis it is an ex­is­ten­tial bat­tle. It's black and white. We in Le­banon are used to grey," the source said.

Sab­han could not im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment.

RES­IG­NA­TION

Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion shocked his team.

Le­banese Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, a Hezbol­lah ally, told am­bas­sadors to Le­banon that Saudi Ara­bia had kid­napped Hariri, a se­nior Le­banese speech

Saad al-Hariri of­fi­cial said. On Fri­day, France said it wanted Hariri to have "all his free­dom of move­ment".

In his speech, Hariri said he feared as­sas­si­na­tion and ac­cused Iran and Hezbol­lah of sow­ing strife in the re­gion. He said the Arab world would "cut off the hands that wickedly ex­tend to it," lan­guage which one source close to him said was not typ­i­cal of the Le­banese leader.

Hariri's res­ig­na­tion came as more than 200 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 11 Saudi princes, current and for­mer min­is­ters and ty­coons, were ar­rested in an an­ti­cor­rup­tion purge in Saudi Ara­bia.

Ini­tially there was spec­u­la­tion Hariri was a tar­get of that cam­paign be­cause of his fam­ily's busi­ness in­ter­ests. But sources close to the Le­banese leader said his forced res­ig­na­tion was mo­ti­vated by Saudi ef­forts to counter Iran.

Hariri was taken to meet the Saudi king af­ter his res­ig­na­tion. Footage was aired on Saudi TV. He was then flown to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Zayed, the Saudi crown prince's main re­gional ally. He re­turned to Riyadh and has since re­ceived West­ern am­bas­sadors.

Sources close to Hariri said the Saudis, while keep­ing Hariri un­der house ar­rest, were try­ing to or­ches­trate a change of lead­er­ship in Hariri's Fu­ture Move­ment by in­stalling his el­der brother Ba­haa, who was over­looked for the top job when their father was killed. The two have been at odds for years.

In a state­ment, the Fu­ture Move­ment said it stood fully be­hind Hariri as its leader. Hariri aide and In­te­rior Min­is­ter No­had Mach­nouk dis­missed the idea Ba­haa was be­ing po­si­tioned to re­place his brother:

"We are not herds of sheep or a plot of land whose own­er­ship can be moved from one per­son to an­other. In Le­banon things hap­pen though elec­tions not pledges of al­le­giances."

Fam­ily mem­bers, aides and politi­cians who have con­tacted Hariri in Riyadh say he is ap­pre­hen­sive and re­luc­tant to say anything beyond "I am fine". Asked if he is com­ing back, they say his nor­mal an­swer is: "In­shal­lah" (God will­ing).

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