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Middle East

In surprise reversal, Lebanese PM Hariri puts resignation on hold

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 11:32pm

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced on Wednesday that he was putting his resignation on hold to give way for more consultations, nearly three weeks after he unexpectedly announced he was stepping down.

It was a quick reversal – a day after his return to Lebanon – and an embarrassment to Saudi Arabia, which was widely seen as having orchestrated his resignation.

In conciliatory comments from the presidential palace, Hariri said he is putting Lebanon’s interest first and is looking forward to a “real partnership with all political forces to put Lebanon’s higher interest before any other interests”.

He said he presented his resignation to President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace, but then responded to Aoun’s request to take more time for consultations, “hoping it will constitute a serious opening for a responsible dialogue”.

“Our beloved nation needs in this critical period exceptional efforts from everyone to protect it in the face of dangers and challenges,” Hariri said in a statement after meeting with Aoun.

He reiterated the need for Lebanon to remain neutral on regional disputes and conflicts “and all that undermines internal stability and brotherly relations with Arab brothers”.

Hariri’s reversal highlights the latest Saudi foreign policy overreach under its young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seen as being behind most of the country’s major decisions.

Under the bullish crown prince, who has the blessing of his father King Salman, Saudi Arabia has taken a much harder line against Iran, which has successfully spread its influence in the Arab region in recent years.

The crown prince, who is also defence minister, has a reputation for being both decisive and impulsive. He has led Saudi Arabia into a nearly three-year-long war in Yemen to try and push back Iranian-allied rebels there, a conflict that has been widely condemned. Most recently, aid groups slammed the tightening of a Saudi blockade in Yemen, prompting Riyadh to say it would ease restrictions on urgently-needed humanitarian supplies.

In his mysterious resignation from Saudi Arabia, Hariri had said he was protesting what he called the meddling in Arab affairs by Iran, the Persian regional powerhouse, and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a partner in the coalition government formed by Hariri a year ago.

The televised resignation had sparked a political and diplomatic crisis as Lebanese officials accused the Gulf kingdom of pressuring the Sunni, Saudi-aligned politician to resign.

Hariri’s reversal appears to be a culmination of nearly three weeks of international pressure for Lebanon’s delicate political balance to hold, though Saudi Arabia probably knew in advance of Hariri’s decision to withdraw his resignation.

It is seen as a win for French President Emmanuel Macron, whose mediation succeeded in getting Hariri out of Saudi Arabia to Paris. He returned to Lebanon on Tuesday night following brief stops in Egypt and Cyprus.

By midday, a few thousand of Hariri supporters converged on his residence in central Beirut amid tight security, in a show of support. Hariri pledged to stay in Lebanon.

“There is nothing more precious than our country,” he told them. “I am staying with you and I will keep going with you to be the first line of defence of Lebanon, its stability and its Arab nature.”

Earlier Wednesday, Hariri took part in Independence Day celebrations, his first official appearance since his resignation, which set Lebanon in turmoil and triggered concern that the tiny country, which has enjoyed relative calm amid a Middle East on fire, would again be dragged to the forefront of the intensifying regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Hezbollah says Saudi Arabia is sowing instability in Lebanon, and accused the kingdom of partnering with Israel to start a war.

Hariri, in his only in depth interview since announcing his resignation, told his media station Future TV that he could retract his resignation if a deal could be struck with his opponents to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.