Lebanon’s Hariri leaves for Riyadh on first visit since ‘resignation’

Reuters – Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri left for Riyadh late on Tuesday, his media office said, for his first to the Saudi capital since he abruptly resigned there in November.

A statement by Hariri’s media office said he was responding to an invitation from Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula, whom he met in Beirut on Monday. It said Hariri would meet Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Hariri’s office said earlier he had accepted the invitation and that he would go to Riyadh as soon possible, without setting a date. [L8N1QG5NE]

The premier last traveled to the kingdom on Nov. 3 and unexpectedly resigned in a televised statement a day later. Lebanese officials accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Hariri, its long-time ally, to quit and putting him under effective house arrest until France intervened. Riyadh has denied this.

He returned home weeks later and withdrew his resignation, drawing a line under the crisis that had raised fears for Lebanon’s economic and political stability.

The crisis thrust Lebanon onto the frontline of a Middle East contest for power, pitting a Saudi-led bloc against Iran and its allies that include the Lebanese Shi‘ite Hezbollah movement.

After his return, Hariri’s coalition government, which includes Hezbollah, reaffirmed a state policy of staying out of conflicts in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia accuses the heavily armed Hezbollah of waging war across the Middle East as agents of Iran.

Lebanon declared its policy of “dissociation” in 2012 to keep the deeply divided state out of regional conflicts such as the war in neighboring Syria.

Still, Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters across the border to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Paul Tait