Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh. This photograph was released by the Saudi Royal Court on November 11, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh. This photograph was released by the Saudi Royal Court on November 11, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

The talk of the town in Beirut is that former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is being “held against his will” by Saudi authorities and prevented from returning home to Lebanon. The bizarre story has gone viral on social media networks and around the cafes of Beirut, having first surfaced last week on the front page of the pro-Hezbollah daily al-Akhbar, which described him as a “hostage.”

This was shortly after Hariri had announced his resignation as prime minister – in Riyadh, rather than Beirut – on the very same day that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, arrested 11 powerful princes in a massive crackdown against opponents, critics, and doubters, all under the pretext of “fighting corruption.”

The relationship between the Crown Prince – commonly referred to as MBS – and Hariri was lukewarm, to say the least. For one thing, Mohammad Bin Salman considered the Lebanese leader too soft on Hezbollah. That doesn’t merit restricting his movement, though, let alone placing him under arrest for two nights, as The Washington Post has claimed.

Some are speculating that MBS wants Hariri replaced by his low-profile 51-year old brother Bahaa, a successful businessman with close ties to the kingdom which he inherited from their father Rafik al-Hariri, a tycoon-turned-politician who was assassinated back in February 2005.

According to Beiruti bazaar gossip, the Saudis want to install Bahaa as head of Lebanon’s Future Movement, which Saad still leads, and then as prime minister. That story is difficult to believe, however, for a variety of reasons.

One is simply that Bahaa al-Hariri was, and remains, completely uninterested in politics. Although he was the eldest son of the slain Rafik, he willingly relinquished the family’s political legacy to his younger brother, seeing the job as too costly, dangerous and dull. It is an open secret that the two brothers do not get along, and that Bahaa has been privately critical of his brother’s handling of the family’s business empire, which has been all but squandered over the past 12 years. That doesn’t mean that he is out to dethrone him, however.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman walks with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, on November 8, 2017. Photo: Saudi Press Agency via Reuters

Another problem is that even if the Saudis wanted Saad out and Bahaa in, the former’s popularity is soaring in Lebanon like never before. Any parachuting would be quite a challenge.

Riyadh insists Hariri is free and decided to resign because Hezbollah was calling the shots in his coalition government. In his resignation speech, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran, in league with Hezbollah, of sowing strife in the Arab world.

The general consensus among the Lebanese is that Saad al-Hariri was forced to step down, his resignation speech dictated to him by Saudi officials. After all, the speech went out via al-Arabiya, a popular Saudi channel, rather than on his own Future TV or via Lebanese national television. Sympathies have inevitably been stoked: the streets of Beirut are filled with giant posters saying “We are all Saad al-Hariri.” According to a statement issued by his Future bloc, his return to Lebanon is “necessary.”

Multiple sources in Beirut claim Hariri was summoned in haste to Saudi Arabia one night before his resignation, ostensibly for a meeting with the Crown Prince. He canceled three scheduled meetings in Lebanon which have not been rescheduled. His Lebanese phone is switched off and none of his close advisers or allies have been able to reach him since November 3.

President Michel Aoun is said to have spoken with Hariri, and has said that he will not accept the resignation until Hariri comes to Beirut and explains it in person. Hariri promised to do so later last week – but he failed to, and has stopped taking calls from the president, who on Saturday issued a statement complaining that “Lebanon does not accept its prime minister being in a situation at odds with international treaties.”

His Lebanese phone is switched off and none of his close advisers or allies have been able to reach him since November 3

Hariri traveled with only two of his bodyguards — one of whom has returned to Beirut aboard the premier’s plane, without his boss. According to sources, Hariri did hold a series of meetings in Riyadh last week with a series of western diplomats, including the US Charges d’Affaires, then flew to Abu Dhabi for talks with the emirate’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed, a close friend of Mohammad Bin Salman.

On Wednesday, US State Department Spokesperson Heath Nauert refused to say anything about whether or not Hariri was under house arrest or where the meeting with him took place, adding to the high drama in Beirut. It is believed that Hariri took part in a ceremony on Saturday welcoming King Salman back from a visit to Medina.

Another story presently making the rounds in Lebanon is that Hariri is being asked to testify against Prince Mutib Bin Abdullah, who is the son of former Saudi King Abdullah and heads the Royal Guard. He was arrested in Mohammad Bin Salman’s “Night of Long Knives” maneuver last Saturday, and only Hariri has enough information to bring him down. Although he holds dual Lebanese-Saudi nationality, Hariri’s immunity as Lebanese prime minister could have allowed him to wriggle out of such a position.

Politically, President Aoun can refuse Hariri’s resignation (which he has done so far), and continue to await his return to Beirut with an explanation. Until that happens, there is nothing preventing the cabinet from functioning without a prime minister, just like the entire Lebanese state worked without a president for more than two years from 2014.

Constitutionally, somebody needs to chair the cabinet of ministers. Theoretically, that could be either Hariri’s deputy Ghassan Hasbani (the Minister of Health) or President Aoun himself. Sunni Muslims would never hear of it, however, given that the job has historically been held by one of their community leaders, according to a 1943 gentlemen’s agreement known as the National Pact. Both Hasbani and Aoun are Christians. President Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah is, similarly, not to Sunni tastes.

A new prime minister could of course be chosen – but that won’t happen before Saad al-Hariri returns to Lebanon. Constitutionally and legally, he remains prime minister – and all Lebanese seem to agree on that.

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