BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon believes Saad al-Hariri, who resigned as prime minister on Saturday while in Saudi Arabia, is being held by Riyadh, and Beirut plans to work with foreign states to secure his return, a top Lebanese government official said on Thursday.
Hariri’s shock resignation read from Saudi Arabia pitched Lebanon into a deep political crisis and pushed the country back to the forefront of a regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It has fueled speculation in Lebanon that the Sunni Muslim politician, long an ally of Riyadh, was coerced into stepping down by the Saudis.
A second source, a senior Lebanese politician who is close to Hariri, said: “When he went (to Saudi Arabia) he was asked to stay there and ordered to resign. They ordered him to read his resignation statement and he has been held under house arrest since.”
Saudi Arabia and Hariri aides have denied reports that he is under house arrest. But he has put out no statements himself denying his movements are being restricted. He made a one-day flying visit to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week before returning to Saudi Arabia.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun is moving toward a diplomatic approach to “uncover the mystery surrounding Hariri’s resignation”, Lebanon’s al-Manar television, which supports Iran-backed Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah, reported.
Saudi Arabia says Hezbollah, which was included in Hariri’s coalition government, had “hijacked” Lebanon’s political system.
In his resignation speech, Hariri attacked Iran and Hezbollah for sowing strife in Arab states and said he feared assassination. His father, a veteran former prime minister, was killed by a bomb in 2005.
“Lebanon is heading toward asking foreign and Arab states to put pressure on Saudi to release Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri,” said the top government official, who declined to be identified because the government had yet to declare the initiative.
“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 Hariri was still Lebanon’s prime minister, echoing other Lebanese government officials who say Hariri’s resignation had not been received by Aoun.
Aoun wants Hariri to return to Lebanon and explain the reasons for his resignation before he will take a decision it.
The resignation of Hariri, who is a business tycoon with major investments in Saudi Arabia, came at the same time as a wave of arrests of Saudi princes and businessmen accused of corruption by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
(This version of the story clarifies sourcing to show that politician cited in paragraph 4 is different to the top official cited in paragraph 1)
Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff