How Saudi Arabia turned Lebanon's Hariri from prime minister to 'prisoner'

How Saudi Arabia turned Lebanon's Hariri from prime minister to 'prisoner'
In-depth: Details have emerged from Beirut officials that allegedly reveal how Saudi Arabia turned on long-time ally Saad Hariri and forced him to resign as Lebanon's prime minister.
4 min read
12 November, 2017
Hariri meets King Salman a week after his allegedly forced resignation [Bandar AlGaloud/Saudi Royal Council]

Saad Hariri arrived in Riyadh without diplomatic fanfare, his phone was confiscated and resignation speech written for him, Beirut officials have claimed, revealing alleged new details into Saudi Arabia's virtual kidnap and detention of the Lebanese leader. 

Sources have said Hariri's forced resignation was motivated by Saudi efforts to counter Iran and the former prime minister's refusal to confront Hizballah's power in Lebanon.

"When Hariri's plane landed in Riyadh, he got the message immediately that something was wrong," a Hariri source told Reuters.

The saga reportedly began on November 2, when Hariri was summoned to the kingdom to meet Saudi's ruler King Salman. Before departing, he told his officials he would be back on Monday.

He also told his media team he would see them at the weekend in Sharm al-Sheikh, where he was due to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum.

On Friday, having landed in Riyadh without ministers or princes to greet him, Hariri received an urgent call from the protocol team of Mohammad bin Salman asking him to see the crown prince and spend the weekend with him.

The Friday meeting didn't happen, and Hariri stayed that night at his lavish home on Al Takhassossi Boulevard in Riyadh.

At 8am on Saturday - unusually early for the kingdom, the Washington Post reported - Hariri was summoned to meet MbS, as the 32-year-old king-in-waiting is known. The trappings of protocol were gone and Hariri travelled in two cars with only his personal security. At some point, Hariri had his phone confiscated, Reuters sources said.

Hours later he was presented with his resignation speech to be broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.

Feared assassination 

In his speech, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran and Hizballah of sowing strife in the region. He said the Arab world would "cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it" - language which one source close to him said was not typical of the Lebanese leader.

Hariri has given no public remarks since he resigned and no indication of when he might return to Lebanon.

Read more: What will Hariri's shock resignation mean for Lebanon?

Sources close to Hariri say Saudi Arabia has concluded that the prime minister had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hizballah, backed by Saudi's arch rivals Iran.

The sources say Hariri believed he had earlier convinced Saudi officials of the need to maintain an entente with Hizballah for the sake of Lebanon's stability.

Hariri had travelled to Saudi Arabia a week before his resignation for a personal meeting with MbS, and returned confident of continued Saudi support for Lebanon, he revealed in talks with cabinet officials.

"What happened in those meetings, I believe, is that (Hariri) revealed his position on how to deal with Hizballah in Lebanon: that confrontation would destabilise the country. I think they didn't like what they heard," said one of the sources, who was briefed on the meetings.

Hariri underestimated the Saudi position on Hizballah, the source said. Lebanese officials now worry that MbS wants to force Lebanon into his confrontation with Iran

"For the Saudis it is an existential battle. It's black and white. We in Lebanon are used to gray," the source said.

Hizballah has a heavily armed fighting force, in addition to seats in parliament and government. Saudi-backed efforts to weaken the group in Lebanon a decade ago led to Sunni-Shia clashes and a Hizballah takeover of Beirut.

Hariri's replacement

Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his harder line older brother Bahaa as Lebanon's top Sunni politician. Bahaa is believed to be in Saudi Arabia and members of the Hariri family have been asked to travel there to pledge allegiance to him, but have refused, the sources say.

Saudi Arabia has dismissed suggestions it forced Hariri to resign and that he is being held against his will. Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the circumstances of his arrival, whether his phone had been taken, or whether the kingdom was planning to replace him with his brother.

Hariri reportedly stayed on Saturday and Sunday nights in a villa on the compound of the Ritz-Carlton, where the high-profile Saudis detained in Saturday night's anti-corruption sweep are being held. Hariri met with King Salman on Monday, and then traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

On Tuesday at his Riyadh residence, screened by Saudi military security, Hariri met over the next several days with diplomatic representatives of the US, Russia and major European powers.

However, questions over Hariri's status remain. He has not made any statements in the week since his resignation or indicated any imminent return to Beirut.

Members of Hariri's own al-Moustaqbal (Future) party said they had no information on his fate and President Michel Aoun has pressed for an explanation for his absence. 

Even world powers have appealed for calm and Hariri's freedom of movement.

On Saturday evening, Hariri attended a reception ceremony at the Riyadh airport for King Salman who had flown back to the capital from the holy city of Medina, Hariri's media office said in a statement.

It added Hariri had earlier in Riyadh met with both the British and Turkish envoys to the kingdom. 

Agencies contributed to this report.