The story of the fate of Lebanon’s erstwhile prime minister is unfolding like a real-life television drama.
Last week, Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a televised address from Saudi Arabia. The sudden move left Lebanon in shock and fueled heavy speculation that the Saudi royal family had forced him to step down. Lebanese President Michel Aoun even said he believes that Hariri — who also holds Saudi citizenship — is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.
For eight days following his resignation on Nov. 4, Hariri was seen but not heard. The official Saudi Press Agency carried photographs of him meeting Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman at a palace in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Days later, Hariri’s private plane returned to Lebanon, but he didn’t.
Western diplomats said they had met with Hariri at his family’s residence in Riyadh, where his wife and children live, but they came out of the meetings tight-lipped. Hariri himself said nothing in public.
The palace intrigue intensified. Stories leaked that Hariri had been presented with a resignation script upon arriving in Saudi Arabia and forced to read it. Reuters reported that the Lebanese prime minister’s phone had been confiscated.
On Sunday night, Hariri gave his first interview since the resignation speech. On camera, he appeared drained and nervous. He was pale, with dark bags under his eyes. There were moments when he seemed on the verge of tears.
Speaking to a reporter from Future TV, his political party’s channel, Hariri denied that he was being held against his will. He said he plans to return to Lebanon “within days” to formally submit his resignation.
But later in the interview, he plotted a new twist: He said he may be tempted to stay in power after all.
He might rescind his resignation, he said, if Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese political group and militia funded by Iran, pulls out from conflicts in the region.
Hezbollah is fighting in the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. All this, said Hariri, would have to stop. He insisted Lebanon would remain neutral in these wars.
If the interview was meant to end the rumors that Hariri is being coerced by Saudi Arabia, it didn’t exactly work.
At least five Lebanese television channels reportedly refused to broadcast the interview, saying it still wasn’t clear whether their prime minister could speak freely.
Maha Yahya, the director of the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says she believes Hariri’s TV appearance may have been a way for him and the Saudis to save face in the international backlash. The United States, the U.K. and several European countries issued barely veiled rebukes of Saudi Arabia, as they called for stability in Lebanon.
Yahya said these statements likely had an impact.
“I suspect that this [statement by Hariri that he might return] is kind of a more honorable exit for everyone concerned,” she said. “I think this kind of strong-arm tactic [by Saudi Arabia] obviously caused a lot of alarm, and that flies in the face of international norms. So I suspect that this was [to] kind of soften the entire situation.”
The Saudis deny that they forced Hariri to resign and say he came to Riyadh because of death threats he faced in Lebanon.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi citizen and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said speculation about anything else is “ridiculous.”
This week’s events, he says, are Hariri’s own chosen response to an escalating power struggle in the Middle East. He believes Hariri was emboldened to speak out against Hezbollah by the fact that the United States and Saudi Arabia have strengthened their position against Iran’s involvement in conflicts in the region.
“I think this is all part of a trend that is regional and not just about Lebanon. You know, Saudi Arabia, the United States, other countries in the region, they’re all going in the direction of calling out Iran for its activities,” he said. “Prime Minister Hariri was refraining from beating around the bush any longer about Iran’s malign influence in Lebanon.”
Hariri initially said he was stepping down because of Iranian influence in Lebanon’s affairs. As well as being a well-armed militia, Hezbollah is a dominant force in Lebanon’s ministerial Cabinet.
Whatever the reason behind the Lebanese prime minister’s actions, his call on Sunday for a neutral Lebanon aligns with Saudi Arabia’s interests.
The Sunni Muslim royal family has long vied with Iran’s Shiite regime for influence in the region. Hariri’s insistence on a neutral Lebanon is in effect a call to weaken Iran’s grip on the country.
His demand that Hezbollah pull out of its foreign wars is unlikely to be met. These conflicts have cost the group many lives, and it is so strong in Lebanon, there is little reason for it to capitulate.
But, the Carnegie Endowment’s Yayha said, at least the door is open for negotiation now. Hezbollah, too, has an interest in Lebanon’s stability, and that includes keeping Hariri and his coalition government in office.
A country that once lived under French occupation, Lebanon has long been buffeted by the demands of greater foreign powers.
In recent years, Hezbollah’s role in neighboring Syria’s civil war paralyzed Lebanon’s political system. Elections were suspended and the country was without a president for two years.
Even if Hariri eventually returns, his country’s future is far from clear. So Lebanese take life one step at a time. At a marathon in Beirut over the weekend, many pounded the streets carrying signs that read: “We want our prime minister back.”