Riyadh: Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri will travel to France this weekend from Saudi Arabia, Paris said Thursday, after the kingdom rejected accusations he was detained in Riyadh following his shock resignation.
The French presidency said Hariri would meet President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace after arriving on Saturday, two weeks to the day since he announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia.
Hariri has been in Riyadh since giving a statement on television that he was stepping down because he feared for his life while also accusing Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising Lebanon.
His trip to Paris could help to defuse regional tensions and end speculation that Hariri, a dual Saudi national, was being held against his own will.
The latest developments came after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Hariri in Riyadh and said the Lebanese premier had accepted an invitation to go to Paris.
Hariri said he would travel to France “very soon” from Saudi Arabia, without saying when.
Earlier Le Drian held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, who told reporters that Hariri, whose family is a longtime ally of the kingdom, was free to leave “when he pleases”.
Hariri is living in the kingdom “of his own free will,” said Al Jubeir, the highest-ranking Saudi official to comment on Hariri’s status since his surprise resignation.
“These are false allegations. The accusation that Saudi Arabia is detaining a prime minister, and particularly a political figure who is an ally... is untrue,” he added.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who had accused Saudi authorities of “detaining” Hariri and refused to accept his resignation from abroad, welcomed the news about the trip.
“We hope that the crisis is over and Hariri’s acceptance of the invitation to go to France is the start of a solution,” he said on the official presidential Twitter account.
France visit ‘not exile’
“If Mr. Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely, but his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government,” Aoun said later in a statement issued by his office.
Le Drian’s visit is the latest in a string of European efforts to defuse the rising tension over Lebanon, which has long been riven by disagreements between Hariri’s bloc and that of his chief rival, Hezbollah.
“He (Hariri) will come to France and the prince has been informed,” Le Drian told reporters, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman with whom he held talks Wednesday.
The French president’s office on Wednesday had confirmed that Hariri and his family had been invited to France for a “few days” but that did not mean he would stay there in exile.
Macron has stressed that Hariri should be able to return to Lebanon to confirm or withdraw his resignation in person.
Common stance on Iran
Hariri’s resignation came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in regional conflicts in countries including Syria and Yemen.
Many observers saw his stepping down as a power play between Riyadh and Tehran.
Speaking at the news conference, Al Jubeir denounced Hezbollah as “a tool of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” and “a first-class terrorist organisation used by Iran to destabilise Lebanon and the region”.
Le Drian said he was also concerned over Iranian “intervention in regional crises” and “hegemonic” intentions.
“I’m thinking specifically about Iran’s ballistic programme,” Le Drian added.
France has however sought to maintain a nuanced position in the region.
Macron, on his first state visit to the Middle East last week, called for vigilance towards Tehran over its ballistic missile programme and regional activities.
But the French president also cautioned against creating a “new front” in a region already fraught with conflicts, including the war in Yemen.
The Arab League is to hold an extraordinary meeting next Sunday at the request of Saudi Arabia to discuss alleged “violations” committed by Iran in the region.