BEIRUT: From the moment Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Friday Nov 3, he was in for a surprise.
There was no line-up of Saudi princes or ministry officials, as would typically greet a prime minister on an official visit to King Salman, senior sources close to Hariri and top Lebanese political and security officials said.
His phone was confiscated, and the next day he was forced to resign as prime minister in a statement broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.
The move thrust Lebanon back to the forefront of a struggle that is reshaping the Middle East, between the conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Iran.
Their rivalry has fuelled conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where they back opposing sides, and now risks destabilising Lebanon, where Saudi has long tried to weaken the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, Lebanon’s main political power and part of the ruling coalition.
Sources close to Hariri say Saudi Arabia has concluded that the prime minister – a long-time Saudi ally and son of late prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah.
Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his older brother Bahaa as Lebanon’s top politician.
“When Hariri’s plane landed in Riyadh, he got the message immediately that something was wrong,” a Hariri source told
Reuters. “There was no one was waiting for him.”
Saudi Arabia has dismissed suggestions it forced Hariri to resign and says he is a free man. Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the circumstances of his arrival, whether his phone had been taken, or whether the Kingdom was planning to replace him with his brother.
Hariri has given no public remarks since he resigned and no indication of when he might return to Lebanon.