Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri is being held by Saudi authorities under what Lebanese sources say amounts to house arrest in Riyadh, apparently as part of the Saudi campaign to squeeze Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
A startling account of Hariri’s forced detention was provided Friday by knowledgeable sources in Beirut. It offers important new evidence of the tactics used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to bolster his rule by mobilizing anti-Iran sentiment at home and abroad.
Rumors of the virtual kidnapping of Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last Saturday while in Saudi Arabia, have rocked the Arab world; Lebanese officials worry that MBS, as the 32-year-old crown prince is known, wants to force Lebanon into his confrontation with Iran. Some Lebanese analysts complain that the Saudis treat the Hariri family, who have been bankrolled by Riyadh for decades, almost as a wholly owned subsidiary.
According to the well-informed Lebanese sources, the tale began on Monday, Oct. 30, when Hariri traveled to Saudi Arabia for a personal meeting with MBS. With the crown prince was Thamer al-Sabhan, his key adviser on relations with other Arab states.
The meeting seemed to go well, the Lebanese sources said, with talk of continued Saudi support for Lebanon, even though Hezbollah dominated the Hariri-led government.
Hariri returned to Lebanon on Nov. 1 and met with the Lebanese council of ministers to brief them on his conversations in Riyadh. Sources said he told the group that the Saudis would back plans for an international conference in Paris on the Lebanese economy, a Rome meeting to support the Lebanese army and a joint Saudi-Lebanese council to encourage investment. Hariri told his cabinet, including Hezbollah representatives, that Lebanon wouldn’t be a Saudi target, even though it was widely expected that MBS would be taking a tougher stance on Iran. Those reassurances proved wrong.
Hariri planned to return to Riyadh to meet with King Salman on Monday, Nov. 6. But the timetable was accelerated after Hariri received an urgent call from MBS’s protocol team asking him to see the crown prince on Friday, Nov. 3, and spend the weekend with him. The Friday meeting didn’t happen, and Hariri stayed that night at his lavish home on Al Takhassossi Boulevard in Riyadh.
What allegedly happened next is the scary part of the story. At about 8 a.m. Saturday, unusually early for the kingdom, Hariri was summoned to meet MBS. The trappings of protocol were gone; Hariri traveled in two cars with only his personal security. He was out of sight for several hours.
Hariri next appeared publicly on television, at about 2 p.m., reading a statement saying that he was resigning as prime minister because of Iranian threats on his life and Tehran’s export of “devastation and chaos.” Such belligerent language about Iran was uncharacteristic for Hariri, and none of his regular speechwriters were consulted about the speech.
Just before the broadcast, the Saudi state-owned al-Arabiya news network is said to have announced that Hariri would be resigning. As his apparently prerecorded speech was shown on television, Hariri called Lebanese President Michel Aoun and said he couldn’t continue in the job and would be returning to Beirut in a few days.
Hariri didn’t return to his Riyadh home until Monday, and reportedly stayed Saturday and Sunday nights in a villa on the compound of the Ritz-Carlton, where the prominent Saudis detained in Saturday night’s anti-corruption sweep are being held. Hariri met with King Salman on Monday, and then traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who has been a mentor for MBS.
Back Tuesday at his residence, now carefully screened by Saudi military security, Hariri met over the next several days with diplomatic representatives of the United States, Russia and major European powers.
What do the Saudis want next? The Lebanese sources believe Hariri’s harder-line older brother Bahaa may be Riyadh’s candidate for prime minister. Other Hariri relatives were summoned to Riyadh last week but refused to go; it’s said that Bahaa was already there. The sources also say that Bahaa sent Safi Kalo, a close adviser, to meet secretly 10 days ago with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to discuss future strategy for Lebanon, but Jumblatt is said to have left the meeting, refusing to discuss the subject.
The Lebanese sources told me they are worried about maintaining internal stability. In recent years, Lebanon’s once-warring sects have been united in trying to sustain the country despite the conflict raging next door in Syria. This internal security, especially precious for Lebanese after nearly two decades of civil war, seems at risk now.
The Lebanese feel, once again, like a Middle East ping-pong ball. They want their prime minister back home.
By David Ignatius.