Lebanon’s Hariri Says He’s Free in Saudi Arabia, to Return Soon

(Bloomberg) -
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives a live TV interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sunday. (Future TV via AP)

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, in his first public comments since his surprise November 4 resignation, dismissed speculation that he was held against his will in Saudi Arabia and said he plans to return home within days.

“I am free in the kingdom,” the Lebanese leader said in an interview from his home in Riyadh, aired by his Future TV. Speaking with a Lebanese flag in the background, he again blamed Iran and Hezbollah for destabilizing his country and defended Saudi Arabia’s war of words against the Islamic Republic.

Speculation has been rife that Saudi Arabia summoned Hariri to Riyadh and broadsided him with a demand to resign because he wouldn’t confront Lebanon’s powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group — a charge the kingdom has denied. The political turmoil has thrust Lebanon to the fore of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry after it managed to avoid the worst of the Syrian civil war next door, creating a potential new center of conflict in the tumultuous Middle East.

In his resignation announcement, Hariri blamed Iran for meddling in Lebanon’s affairs through Hezbollah.

Hariri, a dual Lebanese and Saudi national whose family made a fortune in the kingdom, has made several official appearances since he stepped down, possibly in an attempt to dispel rumors his movements are restricted. Last week, he received ambassadors accredited to the kingdom at his residence in Riyadh and paid a brief trip to Saudi ally United Arab Emirates. He also met with King Salman shortly after his resignation and days later participated in a ceremony at the Riyadh international airport to welcome home the king from a trip.

NBN TV, owned by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said it wouldn’t broadcast the Hariri interview, adopting President Michel Aoun’s position that given Hariri’s circumstances, “his words will not reflect the truth.” Both Berri and Aoun are allied with Hezbollah, whose forces are fighting alongside Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri was propelled into politics by the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. A UN-backed tribunal has charged Hezbollah members with the killing, which took place shortly before Syria’s military pullout from Lebanon, but the group denies involvement.

Saad Hariri was appointed prime minister in 2016 in a power-sharing deal that saw the election of Aoun as president and the end of a two-year political vacuum in Lebanon.