EU's Mogherini calls on Hariri to return to Lebanon

Leading article November 12 2017 12:01am The Sunday Times Saudi Arabia’s young man in a hurry is taking big risks

Top Lebanese government officials and senior sources close to Hariri say Saudi Arabia coerced him into resigning and has put him under effective house arrest since he flew there more than a week ago.

Before that announcement, Cardinal Rai was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman.

Hariri was appointed prime minister late previous year.

Western diplomats said they had met with Hariri at his family's residence in Riyadh, where his wife and children live, but they came out of the meetings tight-lipped.

The palace intrigue intensified.

The only other visit to Saudi Arabia by a Christian patriarch took place in 1975, according to the Saudi information ministry. He has friends and supporters and interests and so forth, first and foremost among them the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, whom Saad Hariri said he look up as a father figures. He was pale, with dark bags under his eyes. At some moments, he even seems on the verge of tears.

Speaking to a reporter from Future TV, his political party's channel, Hariri denied that he was being held against his will.

Meanwhile the French presidency welcomed Hariri's comment that he would soon be returning to Lebanon.

But later in the interview, he plotted a new twist: He said he may be tempted to stay in power after all.

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SHERLOCK: It's unlikely that Hezbollah will meet Hariri's demands to pull out of the region's wars.

Hezbollah is fighting in the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This, Hariri said, would have to stop. But analysts said viewers appeared to pay less attention to what Hariri said and more to his mannerisms during the interview from his home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "We want our Prime Minister to be back, freely, in his country, where he can declare whatever he wants". Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says Hariri's new suggestion, that he may remain prime minister, is likely the result of heavy worldwide pressure on the Saudi government.

At the end of the November 6-10 session of the Catholic Council of the Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, the prelates said their pain "is the continuation of wars in the countries of the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, which have shaken the stability and peace and caused the programmed demolition and the ravages and misfortunes of innocent citizens".

Yahya said these statements likely had an impact.

When asked about reports that he is not communicative and doesn't use his phone much, he said: "I am in a reflective state", adding that he didn't want any distractions amid a very busy schedule. "I think this kind of strong-arm tactic [by Saudi Arabia] obviously caused a lot of alarm, and that flies in the face of global norms". So I suspect that this was kind of a way to soften the entire situation.

Hariri's shock resignation after less than a year as premier mystified Lebanon and led to speculation by some media outlets and politicians that he was forced into it by the Gulf kingdom.

SAAD AL-HARIRI: (Foreign language spoken).

"I think this is all part of a trend that is regional and not just about Lebanon". "Prime Minister Hariri was refraining from beating around the bush any longer about Iran's malign influence in Lebanon". But even as he called for Lebanon's independence from Iran, questions over Hariri's own freedom remain. As well as being a well-armed militia, Hezbollah is a dominant force in Lebanon's ministerial Cabinet. Hariri's insistence on a neutral Lebanon is in effect a call to weaken Iran's grip on the country.

SHERLOCK: This, he says, will depend on Hezbollah meeting certain demands. But, she says, now at least the door is open for negotiation and Lebanon has a chance to keep its prime minister. Elections were suspended and the country was without a president for two years.

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