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Lebanon's Hariri Says He's Free in Saudi Arabia, Back Soon (1)

Sunday, 12 November 2017 07:32 PM

(Bloomberg) -- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, in his first public comments since his surprise Nov. 4 resignation from the Saudi capital, dismissed speculation that he was held against his will in Saudi Arabia and said he plans to return home within days.

Hariri said in an interview from his home in Riyadh, aired by his Future TV, that he will resign officially when he goes back to Beirut. But he also left open the possibility he may return to office. 

“If we want to revoke the resignation, we should respect neutrality and withdraw from regional interferences,” Hariri said, referring to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that is fighting alongside troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “We cannot have any more ambiguity around Lebanon’s neutrality.”

Hariri sought to dispel speculation that Saudi Arabia summoned him to Riyadh and broadsided him with a demand to resign because he wouldn’t confront the Hezbollah militant group -- a charge the kingdom has denied. The political turmoil has thrust Lebanon to the fore of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry after it managed to avoid the worst of the Syrian civil war next door, creating a potential new center of conflict in the tumultuous Middle East.

“I am free in the kingdom,” the Lebanese leader said in the interview. Speaking with a Lebanese flag in the background, he insisted that he wrote his own resignation speech and that he took that step to the benefit of all Lebanese.

The Saudis had not estimated the kind of shock and backlash that Hariri’s resignation would create, said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. The Lebanese markets will “to some extent” breathe a sigh of relief on Monday, “but I don’t think that people will calm down until they actually see him in person in Lebanon with his family with him.”

Hariri again blamed Iran and Hezbollah for destabilizing his country and defended Saudi Arabia’s war of words against the Islamic Republic.

“Hariri is stuck in the middle,” said Kamran Bokhari, senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures. “He wants to counter Iran and Hezbollah but does not want to simply be a Saudi pawn on this chessboard.”

Hariri, a dual Lebanese and Saudi national whose family made a fortune in the kingdom, has made several official appearances since he stepped down, possibly in an attempt to dispel rumors his movements are restricted. Last week he received ambassadors accredited to the kingdom at his residence in Riyadh and paid a brief trip to Saudi ally United Arab Emirates. He also met with King Salman shortly after his resignation and days later participated in a ceremony at the Riyadh international airport to welcome home the king from a trip.

Several TV stations, including NBN TV, owned by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, didn’t broadcast the Hariri interview -- adopting President Michel Aoun’s position that given Hariri’s circumstances, “his words will not reflect the truth.” Both Berri and Aoun are allied with Hezbollah, whose forces are fighting alongside Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri was propelled into politics by the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. A UN-backed tribunal has charged Hezbollah members with the killing, which took place shortly before Syria’s military pullout from Lebanon, but the group denies involvement.

Saad Hariri was appointed prime minister in 2016 in a power-sharing deal that saw the election of Aoun as president and the end of a two-year political vacuum in Lebanon.

(Updates with Hariri remarks in second paragraph, analysts starting in fifth.)

--With assistance from Zaid Sabah

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at dabunasr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Bruce Stanley, Amy Teibel

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

© Copyright 2018 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

   
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Sunday, 12 November 2017 07:32 PM
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