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Lebanese Prime Minister Meets Macron in France After Mysterious Saudi Stay

Mr. Hariri, for his part, said he feared for his safety in Lebanon.

With European diplomats scrambling to defuse the crisis, France seized the role of mediator. France has strong ties to Lebanon, dating from the early 20th century, and to the Hariri family. Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, was close to former President Jacques Chirac. The father, also a prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005.

Mr. Hariri’s office said on Saturday that his wife, Lara, and his eldest son, Houssam, would be present at a lunch in the Lebanese prime minister’s honor at the Élysée Palace. Mr. Hariri’s wife had accompanied him on the flight from Saudi Arabia, and his son was said to have flown in from Britain.

Mr. Hariri’s two younger children, a 16-year-old daughter, Loulwa, and a 12-year-old son, Abdulaziz, did not appear in television footage of his arrival. The two have been attending school in Saudi Arabia and could have stayed behind for that reason, but their apparent absence was likely to raise speculation that the Saudis had pressured Mr. Hariri to leave them in the country as leverage.

Mr. Hariri met at his residence in France with two of his closest advisers, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk and Nader Hariri, a senior aide. Many of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers had been out of touch or only in rare contact with him during his Saudi stay.

At a European Union summit meeting on Friday, Mr. Macron told journalists that France did not want to choose sides in the Middle East, adding that “the role of France is to talk to everyone.” However, he also urged Iran to pursue a “less aggressive regional strategy.”

At 1:10 a.m. on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hariri wrote on Twitter that he was free to leave the country, and added that he was “on the way to the airport.” His tweet mentioned Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister of Germany, who had asked whether the Saudis were holding Mr. Hariri.

Saudi Arabia later said on Saturday that it would formally protest Mr. Gabriel’s remarks and that it would recall its ambassador to Germany.

Mr. Hariri had arrived in Riyadh just as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, put many of the country’s most wealthy and powerful men, including some members of the royal family, under de facto arrest in what has been described as an anti-corruption sweep. His visit also came as the Saudis accused Iran-backed rebels in neighboring Yemen of firing a missile at Riyadh.

It was not clear if Mr. Hariri’s trip was related to these events.

In Lebanon, many questions remain, including whether Mr. Hariri will hand in his resignation or rescind it, and whether the government will be reorganized.

“The crisis of the resignation and Hariri’s return is now finished, but a political crisis has just begun,” Lebanon’s Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, said on Friday after news emerged that Mr. Hariri would fly to Paris.

Regardless of his next moves, Mr. Hariri will remain beholden to Saudi Arabia. His personal and family finances are deeply entwined with the country, which has also backed his party’s extensive political patronage network and media outlets. But the Saudi gambit to get him to take a more confrontational approach against Iran and Hezbollah could backfire.

Mr. Hariri could end up presiding over a caretaker government ahead of elections planned for next year. Analysts and diplomats said that Saudi Arabia was likely to gain little more than a renewed rhetorical commitment from all sides to Lebanese neutrality, especially now that the kingdom appears to have climbed down somewhat under international pressure.

What is clear is that Mr. Hariri was abruptly summoned to Riyadh, days after holding meetings with officials there that left him optimistic that Saudi Arabia was on board with his pragmatic approach.

One theory was that Saudi Arabia was angered when Mr. Hariri met in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, hours before flying to Riyadh. Another was that plans had been in the works longer, since earlier meetings that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, held with Samir Geagea and Sami Gemayel, representing Christian parties that also wanted him to take a tougher line on Hezbollah, and with President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has encouraged the prince’s hard line in the region.

Tension had been building during the year since Mr. Hariri formed a national unity government in a deal that brought Mr. Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, to the presidency.

Hezbollah gained new power and weaponry while helping President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, another Iran ally, beat back insurgents. Mr. Aoun began signaling plans to normalize relations with the Syrian government, with members of his party even meeting with Syrian diplomats in New York during the annual General Assembly gatherings. That was too much for some of Mr. Hariri’s allies and supporters, and for Riyadh.

As Mr. Hariri’s sojourn in Riyadh dragged on, there were even concerns in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia had plans for further escalation, whether pulling Israel into a war, or fomenting internal violence in Lebanon, perhaps by instigating an attack by Palestinian or Syrian refugees that could provoke a crisis. International and Lebanese officials kept in close touch to make sure the security situation remained calm.

Mr. Hariri, meanwhile, reached out to Jordan with a request to go to Amman as a safe haven, a Western official said. The request was denied, the official said, because the Saudis had pressured Jordan not to accept him.

With the goal of avoiding conflict, Mr. Macron, who had been in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, for an opening of a branch of the Louvre, made an unexpected stop in Saudi Arabia and spoke to the crown prince. He also extended an invitation to Mr. Hariri to visit.

“In the case of the Middle East, he has indicated prudently that he will stay in contact with all the protagonists, without confining himself to one camp,” said Hubert Vedrine, a former foreign minister of France. “He wants to stay in contact with the Saudis, the Qataris and the Emiratis, and he has reconfirmed that he will go to Iran.”

Source: NYT > World

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