When Saad Hariri appeared on Saudi state-run Al Arabiya television last week to deliver his “resignation” as the Lebanese Prime Minister, many felt that Hariri, who is also a Saudi citizen was being forced to resign by the Saudi regime.
Several obvious inconsistencies were present in the original “resignation” speech. First and most strangely, he read a speech that was written in a Gulfi dialect of Arabic and instead of using familiar Lebanese terminology, he used Saudi terminology which is largely foreign among Lebanese viewers.
Secondly, his resignation from foreign soil is not only incompatible with Lebanese legal procedure, but it is highly unusual in any context.
Finally, as Hariri owns his own television channel, Lebanon based Future TV, it was considered strange that his speech was exclusively broadcast on a Saudi state-run network.
Further evidence which emerged led Lebanese President Michel Aoun to join with other Lebanese parties including Hezbollah, the Amal movement and some members of Hariri’s own Future Movement to say that Hariri had been kidnapped by Saudi authorities and is being held against his will.
Last night’s interview from Saudi Arabian soil on Hariri’s Future TV was designed to assuage the fears that Hariri is a political hostage, but the interview left many more questions than answers.
Of the many perplexing answers Hariri gave, when asked why no one is able to contact him, he stated that it is becomes he is in “personal meditation”. This answer however, proved deeply unsatisfactory as even close personal colleagues have had no way of contacting Hariri, in spite of his high profile.
Also, while he assured the cameras that he is a free man and will come to Lebanon in a “matter of days” this vague timeline has led many to think that the statement was forced. Furthermore, when he said this, a shadow of a man was visible in the broadcast, with some indicating that Saudi handlers were putting pressure on Hariri to stick to a script even in the midst of the interview which Future TV’s representatives refused to confirm was live.
While continually gulping down glasses of water, Hariri appeared flustered and at one point even appeared to break down in tears.
While Hariri’s assertions that Hezbollah and “the Syrian regime” intend to kill him, claims which have not been supported by any evidence and which have been roundly debunked by the politically neutral Lebanese security services, Hariri’s body language rather than his seemingly Saudi authored statements, were the talk of Arabic social media in the aftermath of the puzzling interview.
When it comes to Hariri’s future there are several possible options.
1. Hariri remains in Saudi and Lebanon moves on
In many ways, this is starting to look like the most realistic option. While Hariri claims he will return to Lebanon, this statement has been met with near universal scepticism. In other words, until people see it, they won’t believe it.
On the surface, this may still be an acceptable solution for Lebanon. While many predicted that the fragile multi-party Lebanese coalition government would collapse upon Hariri’s “resignation”, in reality, Lebanese parties from across the political spectrum, with only some scant exceptions, have remained committed to the coalition and rule of law in Lebanon. The mature response of Lebanese politicians was not something that Saudi Arabia and other who may have been behind the forced “resignation”, such as Israel, may have accounted for.
If Hariri does not return in the near future, Beirut’s relations with Riyadh will be deeply strained in the near future, but this might also have an unexpected positive effect of helping Lebanon to protect her sovereignty and national dignity with more strength than in previous years.
2. Hariri comes to Lebanon and causes trouble
Hariri indicated in his interview that he may rescind his resignation if groups like Hezbollah commit to remaining neutral in conflicts such as the Syrian war against terrorism. This demand is unrealistic, unacceptable to Hezbollah and not practical for Lebanon as Hezbollah’s aid of the Syrian Arab Army in the fight against terrorism, has helped secure Lebanon from attacks by Takfiri terrorist groups. This is something that is acknowledged either openly or privately by Lebanese of many sectarian stripes.
If Hariri does return and attempt to sow discord in the coalition by effectively waging a pro-Saudi sectarian political war, this could in fact lead to the political instability in Lebanon that thus far has been avoided.
However, if he did return and try to force Hezbollah out of the coalition with ridiculous demands, it would once and for all, expose the fact that Hariri was lying about fears for his safety at the hands of “Hezbollah, Iran and Syria”. After all, someone returning to Lebanon to ‘take on’ Hezbollah isn’t afraid, but is arrogant.
3. Hariri comes to Lebanon and resigns in disgrace
Hariri’s star which was never particularly big and which in any case relied on the legacy of his more experienced father, is tarnished in Lebanon, perhaps beyond repair. Unless he were to come to Lebanon and denounce Saudi for kidnapping him, something which at this point seems unlikely given the amount of personal business Hariri conducts in Saudi (albeit with many purged Princes), he may be seen as more of a disgraced political liability than a ‘returned hero’.
The reason that most Lebanese are demanding his return is not a sign of support for Hariri’s policies, let alone his apparently subservient attitude to the Saudi regime, but because the kidnapping of a Prime Minister by a foreign power, is a matter of principle and national dignity.
If Lebanese and wider international pressure results in a return of Hariri, Lebanon will have won a moral victory, but Hariri himself will still be widely seen as something of a “loser”, to borrow Donald Trump’s favourite epithet.
Because of this, Hariri may find that his career in front line Lebanese politics may be incredibly diminished when he returns, at least in the immediate future. The leader of the Future Movement, is in this sense, already a thing of the past, in spite of his youth.
Saad Hariri’s interview was likely staged and the “freedom” he claimed he had was almost certainly an exaggeration at best, if not an outright lie. Because information from Saudi is so scant, only Hariri’s departure from Saudi Arabia will provide the penultimate evidence of his alleged freedom or perhaps better put, the end of his captivity.
The coming days may reveal more about Hariri’s true condition, but for now, the infamous interview has left the world none the wiser when it comes to what Saudi Arabia is actually doing to the effectively deposed Lebanese Premier.