Saad Hariri has rejected rumours he is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will and pledged to return to Beirut “very soon” to affirm his decision to quit as Lebanon’s prime minister.
Hariri made the comments from Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, speaking publicly for the first time since his shock resignation eight days ago.
Speaking on Sunday on Future TV, a station affiliated with his political party, Hariri said he was free in Saudi Arabia.
“Here in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I am free. I have complete freedom, but I want to look after my family as well,” he said, adding that he planned to return to Lebanon in the near future.
“I’m not talking about months … I’m only talking about days and I’ll go back to Lebanon.”
In an unexpected move, Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and longtime ally of Saudi Arabia, quit as Lebanon’s prime minister on November 4 during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Reading out his resignation in a televised statement from Riyadh, Hariri blamed interference in Lebanon by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for his decision to quit, adding he feared an assassination attempt. His father, Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a truck bomb blast in 2005.
But Lebanese officials have said Hariri is likely to be under either house arrest or in temporary detention in Riyadh.
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Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, said Hariri’s televised appearance on Sunday was aimed at persuading the people in Lebanon that he was not being held against his will – a widespread belief in the country.
“The majority of the Lebanese believe, in one way or another, that there is something wrong,” said Khodr.
“The aim of this interview really is to try and convince the majority of the Lebanese that he is not a hostage, that he has the freedom of movement and that the Saudis are not dictating to him what to say or what to do.”
Hariri’s resignation, just 11 months after he took office, has plunged Lebanon in uncertainty, threatening the country’s fragile political stability and raising concerns over an open-ended crisis.
It has also stoked fears of an escalation in the regional divide between Iran and the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, with Lebanon on the front lines.
Hariri is part of a unity government that also includes rival political factions such as those supported by Hezbollah, a popular Shia group which is represented in the Lebanese parliament and has a strong armed wing.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, on Friday said Hariri is currently detained in Saudi Arabia and that his “forced” resignation is unconstitutional because it was done “under pressure”.
Speaking in Beirut, Nasrallah said he was sure Hariri was forced to resign as part of what he called Saudi Arabia’s policy of stoking sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
In his interview on Sunday, Hariri said he wrote his own resignation speech, insisting that he was not forced to step down.
“I wanted to make a positive shock for the Lebanese people so the people know how dangerous the situation we are in,” he said.
Hariri also said that upon his return to Lebanon he will confirm his resignation in accordance with the country’s constitution.
Lebanese fear escalation of Iran-Saudi tensions
But he also hinted that he could rescind his decision to step down, provided that Hezbollah “respected” Lebanon’s policy of not getting involved in regional conflicts.
Al Jazeera’s Khodr said Lebanon adopted a policy of “disasssociation” from wars in the region, particularly in neighbouring Syria, a few years ago.
“Hezbollah has been accused of ignoring this policy by sending forces to fight along the Syrian government,” Khodr said.
“In one way or another, Hariri threw the ball in Hezbollah’s court – he kept on saying I had to do this to save the country, and now he is telling Hezbollah this is your way to save the country.”
Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, said Hariri’s body language during the Future TV interview indicated that he was in “an uncomfortable situation”.
“This was not the normal Saad Hariri that we’ve seen in Lebanon for many years,” Khouri told Al Jazeera from Boston, US.
“He physically looked not at ease, and what he was saying was very contradictory to many people in Lebanon – saying that he is free when he didn’t look free; saying that he is doing this to help Lebanon when perhaps it was actually more to help Saudi Arabia,” added Khouri.
“There’s just a lot of contradictions and a lack of clarity in what he was saying, so I think it just reinforces the widespread sentiment in Lebanon that he is being used by the Saudi Arabian government as a mechanism to put pressure on the Lebanese government to put pressure on Hezbollah which would put pressure on Iran … I think there is no doubt about that, he is caught in a very difficult situation.”