BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister who unexpectedly resigned during a trip to Saudi Arabia met with Saudi King Salman on Monday as speculation continued to swirl over his surprising move.
The official Saudi Press Agency carried photos of the two meeting at one of the Riyadh palaces but there was no indication when Saad Hariri would return to Lebanon.
The resignation threw Lebanon’s fragile government into disarray. President Michel Aoun, who must accept the resignation for it to be valid, said in a statement Saturday that he would await Hariri’s return to consider the matter.
SPA said four government ministers attended Monday’s meeting between Salman and Hariri, including Foreign Minister Ali Jubair and Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, who predicted on Lebanon’s MTV station last week that “astonishing developments” were coming for Lebanon.
Hariri stunned the Lebanese with his resignation on Saturday and the haltingly delivered televised statement from the kingdom fueled speculations. In the speech, he accused Iran of meddling in Arab affairs and the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of holding Lebanon hostage.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, Hariri’s top political rival at home, speculated on Sunday that Saudi Arabia had forced Hariri to resign amid the deepening Saudi-Iran rivalry.
Monday’s SPA photos appeared aimed at dispelling rumors, acknowledged by the press agency, that the prime minister was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.
A photo released by the Lebanese government last week showed Hariri with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, during a meeting in Riyadh. The Saudi heir to the throne has been moving fast to consolidate power and has been overseeing an unprecedented wave of arrests over the weekend of dozens of the country’s most powerful princes, military officers, influential businessmen and government ministers.
The 47-year old Hariri was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and headed a 30-member coalition government that included Hezbollah, considered a terror group by Israel and the US. It was an uneasy partnership between Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which is loyal to the Shiite Iran. Aoun, who was elected president in October 2016 after more than a two-year presidential vacuum, is a close ally of Hezbollah.
Lebanon has weathered waves of assassinations — including that of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was killed in a Beirut truck bombing in 2005, an assassination some have blamed on Hezbollah — and terror blasts and numerous political crises since emerging from a 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. It also survived a war with Israel in 2006 and a protracted Israeli occupation of its southern territories until 2000.
Hezbollah is the single most potent military and political force in Lebanon, with an arsenal surpassing even that of the Lebanese army. By many accounts, the Shiite militant group has brought disaster to the country by engaging in destructive wars with Israel and it has helped fuel the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria where it has sent thousands of its fighters to shore up President Bashar Assad’s forces.