PARIS — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has accepted an invitation to come to France after his surprise resignation two weeks ago in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis said Thursday Hariri was free to leave whenever he wants, countering claims that he is being held against his will.
Hariri’s stepping down on November 4 during a visit to Riyadh stunned Lebanon and rattled the region.
An official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Hariri was expected in France in the coming days. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
The Saudi foreign minister, rejecting accusations from Beirut that the kingdom was “detaining” him, said Hariri is free to leave Riyadh “when he pleases.”
Hariri, who announced his shock resignation from Saudi Arabia on November 4, is living in the kingdom “of his own free will” and is free to leave “when he pleases,” Adel al-Jubeir told a press conference in Riyadh.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has accused Saudi Arabia of detaining Hariri but said a newly announced visit by the premier to France could be “the start of a solution” to the crisis.
“I wait for the return of…Hariri to decide the next move regarding the government,” Aoun said, in comments during a meeting with journalists. His comments were published on his official Twitter account.
Aoun had refused to accept Hariri’s resignation and accused Riyadh of holding him against his will. Aoun said Wednesday there was no reason for the prime minister not to return to Lebanon.
Hariri resigned citing concerns over the meddling of Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in regional affairs. Saudi Arabia is locked in a feud with Iran over regional influence. Both countries support different groups in Lebanon.
The decision was seen as engineered by Saudi Arabia and raised concerns that it would drag Lebanon, with its delicate sectarian-based political system, into the battle for regional supremacy.
France, Lebanon’s onetime colonial ruler, has been trying to mediate the crisis. On Wednesday, Macron invited Hariri and his family to come to France, apparently as a way to put an end to allegations that the prime minister is being held against his will.
The announcement that Hariri will head to France came after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met in Saudi Arabia with Hariri, the Saudi crown prince and the Saudi king.
The resignation of the Saudi-backed Hariri stunned Lebanon, throwing its government into turmoil. It was a reflection of the deepening feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the region.
On Wednesday, the front page of the daily Lebanese Al-Akhbar boasted: “Saudi loses,” hailing the French for their proposal to end the deadlock.