Are Saudi-Lebanese relations warming up again?
On November 28, Walid Bukhari arrived in office as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Lebanon. He had previously been chargé d’affaires since March 2018, when Ambassador Walid Yaacoub was called back to Riyadh.
The gap between the two mandates was a sign of Saudi discontent towards Lebanon, especially towards its close ally, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, accused by Riyadh of being too soft on Hizballah.
The diplomatic pressure that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has applied to Lebanon and Saad Hariri to counter Hizballah influence reached the point where Saad Hariri was forced to resign, shocking the world, while allegedly held in Saudi Arabia a year ago.
With the help of France, Hariri returned to Lebanon and backtracked on his resignation. He was reappointed as prime minister in May, and still shows the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia his full support, despite the uproar caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On November 3, 2017, Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia for the second time in a week. Born in Riyadh, the Lebanese prime minister has Saudi nationality, and part of his family still lives in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The next day, he resigned on television in a statement aired by Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned channel. In his speech, he accused Hizballah of over-extension in the region, saying he fears for his life. The next day, the head of Lebanon's general security said no plot against Hariri's life was known of.
The Lebanese political scene was in shock, with President Michel Aoun announcing he would wait for Hariri's return before making a decision about his resignation. Many believed the prime minister's resignation was forced upon him.
|The man leading that interrogation: Saud al-Qahtani|
A week later, Hariri still hadn't returned to Lebanon. "Saad Hariri is being detained in Saudi Arabia," said Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah.
"We condemn Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs as well as their shameful actions towards President Hariri."
Reuters reported the Lebanese PM had been "verbally humiliated and beaten, according to eight Saudi, Arab and Western diplomatic sources. The man leading that interrogation: Saud al-Qahtani" - a man also reportedly involved in Khashoggi's murder.
Emmanuel Macron stepped in on November 10. The French president stopped in Riyadh after his visit to the UAE, and met with the crown prince. He officially invites Saad Hariri and his family to France a few days later. Hariri arrived in Paris on November 18 and has lunch at the Elysée Palace.
On the 21st, Hariri returned to Beirut, and "postponed" his resignation the next day, Lebanon's Independence Day. On December 5, he rescinded his resignation altogether.
Olivier Da Lage is a French expert on Saudi Arabia, and the author of Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia. "The disastrous kidnapping of Saad Hariri in November 2017 left marks," he said. "MBS' strategy to change the political dynamics inside Lebanon has failed. If he doesn't want to fail again, Saudi Arabia must review its approach.
"If MbS allowed himself to deprive Saad Hariri of his freedom, it's certainly because he considers him firstly as a Saudi subject."
For the first time with MbS in power, Riyadh was weakened on the international scene. The episode was seen worldwide as crude and non-diplomatic.
Back to normal
Four months after the November crisis, in February 2018, Saad Hariri returned to Riyadh for a few days. He met with King Salman and with MbS twice. The second meeting was decribed as "positive" by Lebanese media.
The following month, President Aoun tweets that "Lebanese-Saudi relations have returned to normal and nothing can disturb them."
The Lebanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia took office in February 2018, after having waited more than five months for Saudi approval. On January 3, Michel Aoun had greeted Walid al-Yaacoub, the new Saudi ambassador to the Cedar nation.
He was pulled from office less than three months later, replaced by Walid Bukhari as chargé d’affaires. But as both countries have official diplomatic representation, tensions ease.
On March 23, Saad Hariri was in Paris while MbS was on a state visit to France. The Lebanese PM was invited by Emmanuel Macron to an official dinner - where he took a selfie with the French president and MBS.
Legislative elections took place in Lebanon in early May 2018. Saad Hariri, although losing a third of his party's seats, was nominated prime minister for the second time and charged with forming a government - which is yet to be formed.
On May 25, President Emmanuel Macron said in a television statement that Hariri was held against his will in Saudi Arabia back in November.
"Lebanon has emerged from a serious crisis, where their prime minister was held in Saudi Arabia for several weeks," he said.
On May 29, Hariri once again goes to Riyadh, for a few days, for private reasons.
|The steps taken by the kingdom go towards justice and the revelation of the truth|
On October 2, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
After days of denial, and different versions of events emerging, Riyadh admitted Khashoggi was killed in an "operation" of which the crown prince had no knowledge.
Saad Hariri was one of the first leaders to support Riyadh, saying on October 23 that "the steps taken by the kingdom go towards justice and the revelation of the truth".
The following day, the "Davos in the desert" business summit launched, despite dozens of world leaders and CEOs cancelling their visit. Hariri did not cancel.
On a stage where the two leaders answered questions from journalists, MbS joked about Hariri's visit: "He is staying two more days in the kingdom," the crown prince said as both men laughed. "So I hope there won't be any rumours about a kidnapping!"
Hariri added "in complete freedom!" a smile clenched on his face, as the room filled with laughter.
Clotilde Bigot is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beirut, focusing on diplomacy and human rights. Follow her on Twitter: @clo_bigot