Lebanon's Hariri Arrives in Paris After Rumors of Saudi Detainment

Hariri called Lebanese President Michel Aoun after his arrival in Paris, saying he would be back in the country by Wednesday

File photo: France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri, prior to a meeting, at the Elysee Palace, Paris Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.
File photo: France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri, prior to a meeting, at the Elysee Palace, Paris Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Thibault Camus/AP

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in France on Saturday from Saudi Arabia and may be back in Beirut next week, seeking to dispel fears that he had been held against his will and forced to resign by Saudi authorities.

Hariri called Lebanese President Michel Aoun after his arrival in Paris and said he will take part in Independence Day celebrations in Beirut on Wednesday, according to Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.

The ceremony is usually headed by the president, prime minister and parliament speaker. It's the clearest indication yet that Hariri is returning soon to Lebanon, still reeling from his strange and surprising resignation announcement Nov. 4 from Saudi Arabia.

The entourage of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives in Paris early November 18, 2017.
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP

Hariri was scheduled to meet at midday Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to mediate in the region to avert a proxy conflict in Lebanon between Iranian-backed and Saudi-backed camps.

Hariri emerged from a convoy that arrived Saturday morning at his Paris residence, where police stood guard. Hariri walked out of his car and moved straight into the building without speaking to journalists.

Hariri issued a statement saying he had arrived with his wife Lara al-Azm in France, which has centuries-old ties to Lebanon.

In his televised resignation announcement, Hariri had cited Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. He also said he was afraid for his life.

Lebanon's president refused to accept Hariri's resignation, accusing the Saudis of holding him against his will. Before leaving Riyadh, Hariri dismissed as "rumors" reports about his alleged detention in the kingdom. In a tweet, he insisted his stay in Saudi Arabia was to consult with officials there on the future of Lebanon and its relations with its Arab neighbors.

Shortly before he left Riyadh, Saudi Arabia asked its citizens for the second time in less than two weeks to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible" given the "circumstances" there. That raised fears of more punitive actions to come.

The Arab League is due to hold a meeting on Sunday in Cairo at Saudi Arabia's urging where the Lebanon crisis and Iran's role in the region are expected to be discussed. Many fear more Saudi punitive actions against Lebanon may be planned.

Just before leaving Saudi Arabia, Hariri met with the Saudi Crown Prince and other senior officials, according to a member of Hariri's political party and two Lebanese television stations.

His family has lunch Saturday at the French presidential palace, but his next steps are so far unannounced. Hariri frequently stays in France thanks to decades-old family ties here.

A French official said Saturday that France is offering Hariri the necessary support during this time of political turmoil in his country, but that France expects him to return "soon." The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Macron said Hariri will be received "with the honors due a prime minister," even though he has announced his resignation, since Lebanon hasn't yet recognized it.

While Macron insists that he's not offering "exile," Hariri's return could be complicated by Lebanon's internal tensions.

It's part of a broader Macron strategy to reassert French influence in the region, while the United States under President Donald Trump is increasingly seen as unpredictable or disengaged. Macron's office says

France's strategy is to talk to all powers in the region and not to appear as choosing a camp.

Another issue might emerge with Hariri's arrival to France: Dozens of French employees are suing in French courts his Saudi Oger construction firm, which has failed to pay them for months.

The company owes them 14 million euros ($16.5 million) — an amount Hariri committed to pay after several meetings with French diplomats, but never did, according to the French daily Liberation.