RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (NOVEMBER 6, 2017) (SAUDI TV) – From the moment former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Friday (November 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 Saudi-owned TV channel.
Hariri’s resignation speech, in which he said he feared assassination and accused Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the region, shocked his team.
After his resignation, former Lebanese prime minister was taken to meet the Saudi king and footage from this meeting was aired on Saudi TV.
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.
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.
The resignation 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 Iran-backed 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 al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah.
Hariri has given no public remarks since he resigned and no indication of when he might return to Lebanon.
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.