BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia Thursday ramped up pressure on Lebanon to oust Hezbollah from the government amid mounting calls by various political parties, including the Future Movement, for the immediate return of Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Riyadh, less than a week after his surprise resignation sent shockwaves in the country and across the region.
In a development reflecting his concern over Hariri’s resignation, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Saudi Arabia shortly before midnight for talks on soaring tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.
Macron’s talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will also include the Lebanese political crisis sparked by Hariri’s resignation, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, who is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia Monday at an official invitation, could meet Hariri in Riyadh, after Saudi officials gave a positive response to his request to do so, a source at the Maronite Church told The Daily Star.
“Patriarch Rai will also carry a message from Aoun to the Saudi king,” another Baabda Palace source said. Rai met Aoun at Baabda Palace during which the patriarch assured the president he would visit Saudi Arabia despite Hariri’s resignation.
For the first time since Hariri announced his resignation from the premiership from Riyadh last week, unidentified Lebanese officials quoted by Reuters said that the prime minister was being held against his will in the kingdom and are seeking foreign pressure on Saudi Arabia to secure his return to Lebanon. “Lebanon is heading toward asking foreign and Arab states to put pressure on Saudi [Arabia] to release Prime Minister Saad Hariri,” a top Lebanese government official told Reuters, adding that Lebanese authorities believe Hariri was being held in the Gulf kingdom.
“Keeping Hariri with restricted freedom in Riyadh is an attack on Lebanese sovereignty. Our dignity is his dignity. We will work with [foreign] states to return him to Beirut,” the official said. Saudi officials have denied reports that Hariri was under house arrest in Riyadh.
But in an ominous development signaling an escalation of Riyadh’s attitude toward the Lebanese government, Saudi Arabia advised its citizens against traveling to Lebanon and asked those who are in the country to leave as soon as possible, the official Saudi Press Agency quoted an official source in the Foreign Ministry as saying.
“Due to the situation in the Lebanese Republic, the kingdom asks its citizens who are visiting or residing in Lebanon to leave it as soon as possible,” the source said, adding that Saudis were advised not to travel to Lebanon from any country.
Kuwait also urged its citizens in Lebanon to leave the country immediately “due to the situation through which the brotherly republic of Lebanon is passing,” according to a statement from the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry. The statement also advised Kuwaitis against traveling to Lebanon.
The United Arab Emirates followed suit, renewing a previous advisory to its citizens against traveling to Lebanon from the UAE or any other country, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Bahrain Sunday had also urged its citizens to avoid traveling to Lebanon and advised those already in the country to leave immediately for their safety.
Another alarming signal of further Saudi punitive measures against Lebanon came from Saudi Minister of State for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, who tweeted Thursday: “All measures will be taken sequentially and continue escalating until things return to normal.”
Saudi Arabia has since signaled its strong rejection of Hezbollah’s participation in a new government.
Sabhan said in a tweet Monday that Lebanon would never be the same after Hariri’s resignation, suggesting that the next Lebanese government should not include Hezbollah representatives.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Hezbollah was using Lebanon as a base to attack the kingdom, indicating that severing diplomatic ties with Beirut was an option.
In an interview with U.S. TV network CNBC, Jubeir warned against Hezbollah’s actions across the region, repeatedly stressing the need to push back against the group in Lebanon.
When asked whether Saudi Arabia was considering cutting diplomatic ties with Lebanon as a measure to push back, the foreign minister responded, “We’re looking at various options and we’re consulting with our friends and allies around the world to see what the most effective way is of dealing with them [Hezbollah].”
The Saudi escalation against Lebanon coincided with increasing demands by various political parties for Hariri’s return to Lebanon.
The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc called for the immediate return of Hariri to Lebanon, in what was viewed as reflecting the bloc’s growing concern over the prime minister’s whereabouts.
“The return of the Lebanese prime minister, the national leader, Saad Hariri, and the head of the Future Movement, is necessary to restore the respect for the internal and external balance of Lebanon in the framework of full respect of Lebanese legitimacy represented in the Constitution and the Taif Accord,” a statement issued after a joint meeting of the Future Movement’s bloc and political bureau chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said.
“We wholeheartedly support Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his leadership and all the decisions he makes under any circumstances,” added the statement, the sharpest yet over Hariri’s absence from Lebanon.
Speaking to MTV Thursday night, Future MP Okab Saqr said Hariri would return to Lebanon soon. “Hariri’s return will be a starting point for a new situation in Lebanon,” he said. He dispelled fears of security incidents or Sunni-Shiite strife over the resignation, saying Hariri’s presence in Lebanon would ward off any strife.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, also called for Hariri’s return to Lebanon.
“We have called in the past for the return of freedom, sovereignty and independence to Lebanon, the return of the prisoners and missing and the return of expatriates,” Bassil tweeted.
Declaring that Aoun’s return from self-exile in France in 2005 was the return of the nation to the nation, he said: “Today, we call for the return of our Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the nation.”
In Riyadh, Hariri met Thursday with French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Francois Gouyette a statement from the premier’s media office said.
The statement said that Hariri had met earlier with the head of the European Union’s delegation in the kingdom, Michele Cervone D’urso.
Hariri Tuesday met separately with U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Saudi Arabia Christopher Henzel and British Ambassador Simon Collins, the statement said.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described Henzel’s talks with Hariri talks as “sensitive, private, diplomatic conversations.”