French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will welcome Lebanese leader Saad Hariri “with the honours that are due a prime minister”, adding that he expected him to return to Lebanon within days or weeks.
Hariri and his family are expected to meet Macron on Saturday in France’s capital, Paris, following an invitation by the French president earlier this week.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and longtime ally of Saudi Arabia, suddenly announced his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister during a visit to Riyadh on November 4.
He has been promising to return home soon but Saudi leaders say they fear for his safety if he does.
Lebanese officials have refused to accept Hariri’s resignation, unless he delivers it on Lebanese soil, and have alleged that he is being held hostage by authorities in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi FM says Hariri free to leave ‘when he pleases’
“I will … welcome Prime Minister Hariri with the honours that are due to a prime minister, indeed resigned, but whose resignation hasn’t yet been recognised in his country, as he hasn’t been there,” Macron said at a conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Friday.
“So nevertheless I’ll welcome him as prime minister,” he added.
“Prime Minister Hariri then has the intention, I believe, to return to his country in the following days or weeks. It’s for him to discuss his own future but I don’t have any doubts about this subject.”
Macron’s invitation to Hariri on Wednesday came just hours after Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that nothing justified the “detention of Hariri” in Saudi Arabia, denouncing it as a Saudi act of aggression.
On Thursday, Aoun welcomed the news of Hariri’s trip to the French capital
“We hope that the crisis is over and Hariri’s acceptance of the invitation to go to France is the start of a solution,” he wrote on the official presidential Twitter account.
“If Mr. Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely, but his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government,” Aoun said later in a statement issued by his office.
There is no confirmation what Hariri will do after visiting Paris, but Okab Sakr, a Lebanese politician from Hariri’s Future Movement political party, said on Wednesday that the Lebanese leader would likely visit other countries before heading to Beirut.
Hariri breaks silence: ‘I am free in Saudi Arabia’
“It is very likely he will be doing a tour of some European and Arab countries to explain Lebanon’s position on the current crisis before he returns [to Lebanon],” he said.
On Friday, Hariri once again dismissed the reports about his alleged detention in Saudi Arabia as “rumours.”
He said in a post on Twitter that he has stayed in Saudi Arabia to consult about the future of Lebanon and its relations with the region.
Tensions with Iran
In his televised resignation speech, Hariri blamed interference in Lebanon by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for his decision, adding that he feared an assassination attempt.
Under a political deal reached last year, a coalition government was formed in Lebanon, with Hariri as prime minister and Aoun as president.
Hezbollah, a popular Shia group which is represented in the Lebanese parliament and has a strong armed wing, also joined the 30-member unity government.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies view Hezbollah as a “terrorist organisation” because of its role in Arab countries ranging from Syria to Yemen.
On Friday, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil during a visit to Russia criticised groups for attempting to “dislodge the Lebanese head of state”, without naming them.
But Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said from Spain that “unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and by extension Iran”.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani compared events in Lebanon to a blockade imposed on his country by a Saudi-led group of countries.
“Exactly what happened to Qatar six months ago is happening now to Lebanon,” he told reporters in Washington, DC.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt announced they had cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and fostering close relations with Iran. Qatar strongly denied the allegations.