Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has landed in Saudi Arabia in his first visit to the kingdom since his now-reversed resignation from Riyadh late last year in a bizarre sequence of events that deeply strained relations between the two countries.
Relations between Hariri and Saudi rulers took a major hit last year. Hariri reversed his resignation — submitted from the kingdom — upon returning to Beirut, saying he reached a domestic deal to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.
From the moment 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 Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite revolutionary Iran.
Sources close to Hariri said at the time that Saudi Arabia concluded 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.
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Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his older brother Bahaa as Lebanon’s top Sunni politician. Bahaa is believed to be in Saudi Arabia and members of the Hariri family have been asked to travel there to pledge allegiance to him, but have refused, the sources say.
Saudi Arabia has dismissed suggestions it forced Hariri to resign and Hariri's current visit is likely to boost relations with his Saudi backers.