Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was due to arrive in France on Saturday from Saudi Arabia as the political crisis that has spiralled since his shock resignation in Riyadh two weeks ago showed little sign of easing.
The Lebanese premier and his wife left Riyadh early Saturday and were due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris after allegations from Hariri’s political rivals in Lebanon that he was essentially being held hostage by the Saudi authorities.
“Mr Hariri left Riyadh airport on his private jet with his wife and is headed for Le Bourget airport”, north-east of Paris, announced Future TV, a television channel owned by Hariri’s family, without specifying if the couple were accompanied by their children.
They are expected to arrive around 7am (0600 GMT), the flight schedule said, according to a source close to Hariri.
The departure of Hariri, 47, came after he met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh Thursday as Lebanon’s former colonial power Paris tries to ease a crisis that has driven up tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In a further escalation of the situation, Saudi state media said Saturday the country had recalled its ambassador to Berlin in protest over comments made by the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel perceived as suggesting Hariri had been held against his will in Riyadh.
Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen, has been in the Saudi capital since his televised announcement there on November 4 that he was stepping down because he feared for his life, accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising his country.
The announcement – which reportedly took even some of Hariri’s closest aides by surprise – and his subsequent failure to return home to quit officially in person, fuelled claims that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons.
But shortly before leaving Riyadh for Paris, Hariri said in a tweet addressed to Gabriel that it was untrue he was being held in Saudi.
“To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie. I am on the way to the airport,” Hariri tweeted.
Gabriel on Thursday said he shared the concern about the threat of instability and bloodshed in Lebanon and, without mentioning Saudi Arabia directly, warned against the “adventurism” behind the Lebanon crisis.
Earlier in the week Gabriel had said: “Lebanon has earned the right to decide on its fate by itself and not become a pinball of Syria or Saudi Arabia or other national interests”.
Prior to Hariri’s departure, Lebanese President Michel Aoun — a Hezbollah ally who had accused Saudi Arabia of “detaining” the prime minister and refused to accept his resignation from abroad — welcomed the announcement of the trip to Paris.
“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 Thursday on the official presidential Twitter account.
“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.
Macron said he will host Hariri with the honours due to a prime minister when they meet at noon on Saturday, with his family set to join them later for lunch.
There is no indication what Hariri plans to do after visiting Macron, but the French leader has insisted he would then be free to return to Lebanon to either formally resign or rethink his decision.
France’s intervention was the latest in a string of European efforts to defuse tensions over Lebanon, where divisions between Sunni Hariri’s bloc and Shiite Hezbollah have long been a focal point in a broader struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.
Hariri — whose father, ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hezbollah — became head of a shaky compromise government including the group last year.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, from a rival bloc to Hariri’s, on Friday during a visit to Moscow blasted unnamed groups for seeking to “dislodge the Lebanese head of state”.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted from Madrid that “unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and by extension Iran”.
Hariri’s resignation comes amid a sharp escalation in the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Riyadh undergoes a major shake-up under ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Riyadh and Tehran back opposing sides in the protracted wars in Yemen and Syria — entangling them in a complex web of proxy conflicts.