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News > World

Lebanon President Aoun Accuses Saudi Kingdom of 'Aggression'

  • Left to Right: Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    Left to Right: Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. | Photo: Reuters

Published 15 November 2017

"What happened wasn't the resignation of a government, but an act of aggression against Lebanon, its independence and dignity," President Aoun said.

The ongoing drama surrounding the alleged detention and subsequent Saudi-demanded resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri appeared no closer to resolution Wednesday as Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, accused Saudi Arabia of committing an unprecedented act of aggression.

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"What happened wasn't the resignation of a government, but an act of aggression against Lebanon, its independence and dignity, and against relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon," Aoun said in a statement.

The heated charges are the latest evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious moves to reshape the Arab Middle East are backfiring, creating a perception that the ultraconservative and oil-wealthy kingdom is acting in a reckless fashion.

"We will not accept him remaining a hostage whose reason for detention we do not know,” Aoun said. "Nothing justifies Hariri's lack of return for 12 days. We, therefore, consider him detained."

Until now, the Lebanese government had said Hariri was either under house arrest or in temporary detention in Riyadh. Aoun has refused to accept his prime minister's resignation until he delivers it personally in Beirut.

Aoun also accused the Saudis of holding Hariri's family hostage in their Riyadh home, casting doubt on Hariri's claims that he would remain free of Saudi coercion following his promised return to Lebanon this week.

"We have not previously asked for their return, but we have confirmed that (his family) is also detained and family members are being searched as they enter and leave the house," Aoun said.

Citing high-level sources close to the outgoing prime minister, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar said Hariri's wife and children are being used as a potential "bargaining chip" in case he strays from Saudi commands upon returning to Lebanon. The paper also claims he is under house arrest in Riyadh's Ritz Carlton hotel.

Crown Prince Salman's detention of Hariri comes after he conducted a massive “anti-corruption” purge of the Saudi royal family, detaining 11 top royals and around 200 business leaders in the kingdom. Many of them are also reportedly being held en masse at the Ritz.

The Saudi kingdom has denied detaining Hariri or coercing him to quit, but Lebanese officials and senior sources close to Hariri told western news agencies that when his plane touched down in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 3, his phone was confiscated and he was forced to deliver his resignation.

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Hariri cited a fear of assassination and detailed how Iran and popular Shia party Hezbollah are "sowing strife" in the Arab world as his reasons for stepping down. The statement drew mockery from Lebanese observers, who noted that his Arabic resembled a Saudi style of the language, rather than his usual Lebanese style.

The Saudis have long been considered Hariri's main external supporter, but the kingdom has increasingly expressed annoyance at Hariri's impotence in confronting Hezbollah and disarming the group's armed wing, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian former general and founder of the nationalist Free Patriotic Movement, is a political ally of Hezbollah, which makes no secret of their ideological and political alliance with Iran.

Lebanon's coalition government was formed last year through a political deal that made Aoun president, Hariri prime minister, and included members of Hezbollah in the cabinet. The move enraged Saudi royals keen on reducing Iran's growing hegemony in the region.

Saudi-Iranian ties have plunged amid mutual charges that the two states support opposing sides in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran has enjoyed a string of victories in recent months, backing the Syrian Army in the successful months-long campaign to stamp out the Islamic State group.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani blasted Saudi Arabia Wednesday in a speech likely to infuriate the Saudis, mocking the kingdom's religiosity and depicting its rulers as amateurs. “Blatant interference in a country like Lebanon and forcing its PM to resign is unprecedented,” Rouhani said.

Deriding reports that the Gulf kingdom has been asking the Israelis to bomb Lebanon and rid the country of its longtime foes Hezbollah, Rouhani said: “It is shameful that a Muslim country asks Zionist entity to bomb Lebanese people... This behavior indicates that people who rule this country are immature.”

Meanwhile, a French presidential source informed Reuters that Hariri and his family will visit France “in the coming days” following an invitation by Emmanuel Macron. The invitation came after Macron spoke to both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Hariri by telephone, the Elysee said in a statement. France has close relations with Lebanon, which was formerly under its colonial control.

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Asked if he was offering Hariri exile, Macron said: "No, not at all. I hope that Lebanon will be stable, and that political choices should be in accordance with institutional rule... We need a strong Lebanon, with her territorial integrity respected. We need leaders who are free to make their own choices and speak freely."

"This has come out of the blue," one diplomat said. "The president wants to ease tensions... but we're also going round in circles. Are we just inheriting the problems?"

The crown prince's recent moves have enjoyed the support of allied Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates; U.S. President Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. The prince also hopes to normalize ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies, according to Israeli officials.

However, western capitals have expressed concern at the prince's decisions. On Wednesday, an unnamed U.S. State Department official said that diplomats, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency feel “growing alarm” that the prince “is behaving recklessly without sufficient consideration to the likely consequences of his behavior, and that has the potential to damage U.S. interests.”

Simultaneously, it emerged that the kingdom is also holding the Saudi-loyal president of Yemen, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, under house arrest along with his sons, ministers and military officials.

Earlier this week, Israeli media suggested that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was urgently dispatched to Riyadh last week, was delivered an ultimatum by the prince to accept a yet-to-be-revealed White House “peace plan” favoring Israeli interests or to resign. He was also instructed to halt the ongoing rapprochement process between Palestinian factions Hamas and the president's Fatah movement.

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