From the moment Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Friday November 3, he was in for a surprise.
There was no line-up of Saudi princes or ministry officials, as would typically greet a prime minister on an official visit to King Salman, senior sources close to Hariri and top Lebanese political and security officials said. His phone was confiscated, and the next day he was forced to resign as prime minister in a statement broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.
The move thrust Lebanon back to the forefront of a struggle that is reshaping the Middle East, between the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
Their rivalry has fuelled conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they back opposing sides, and now risks destabilising Lebanon, where Saudi has long tried to weaken the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, Lebanon’s main political power and part of the ruling coalition.
Sources close to Hariri say Saudi Arabia has concluded that the prime minister – a long-time Saudi ally and son of late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah.
Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his 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.
“When Hariri’s plane landed in Riyadh, he got the message immediately that something was wrong,” a Hariri source told Reuters news agency. “There was no one was waiting for him.”
Saudi Arabia has dismissed suggestions it forced Hariri to resign and says he is a free man. 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 has given no public remarks since he resigned and no indication of when he might return to Lebanon. Aljazeera
Hariri was summoned to the kingdom to meet King Salman in a phone call on Thursday night, November 2.
Before departing, he told his officials they would resume their discussions on Monday. He told his media team he would see them at the weekend in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he was due to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum.
Hariri went to his Riyadh home. His family made their fortune in Saudi Arabia and have long had properties there. The source close to Hariri said the Lebanese leader received a call from a Saudi protocol official on Saturday morning, who asked him to attend a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He waited for about four hours before being presented with his resignation speech to read on television, the source said.
“From the moment he arrived they (Saudis) showed no respect for the man,” another senior Lebanese political source said.