Monday 26 August 2019

Lebanese cardinal arrives in Saudi Arabia to meet PM Saad Hariri

A poster of resigned Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri which says
A poster of resigned Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri which says "we are all with you" hangs on a street in Beirut (AP)

The head of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic community has arrived in Saudi Arabia in the first public visit by a Lebanese official since prime minister Saad Hariri announced his sudden resignation nine days ago.

Cardinal Bechara el-Rai's visit, the first by a Maronite patriarch to the kingdom according to the cardinal, has taken on special significance since Mr Hariri announced his resignation in a surprise statement broadcast from Riyadh on November 4.

The prime minister has not returned to Lebanon since.

Cardinal el-Rai is expected to meet Mr Hariri, as well as Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad, during his two-day visit.

Mr Hariri's shock resignation after less than a year as premier mystified Lebanon and led to speculation by some media outlets and politicians that he was forced into it by Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hariri said on Sunday he would return to Lebanon "within days" to resolve issues with the militant group Hezbollah, his rivals in a coalition government formed last year.

The comments came in his first TV interview since his resignation announcement, in which he lashed out at Hezbollah and its patron Iran.

He struck a more conciliatory tone in the Sunday interview, denying that he was being held against his will in the kingdom and repeating that he feared for his safety in Lebanon.

Lebanon's top security agencies say they have no information to share about possible plots against his life.

Mr Hariri acknowledged in the interview that his resignation was unconventional, adding that he was ready to return to Lebanon to formally submit it and seek a settlement with Hezbollah.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun welcomed his statements and said he hoped the prime minister would return to Lebanon soon. Once he returns, Mr Aoun tweeted, "we will listen to him about all circumstances, topics and concerns that need addressing".

A statement released by Mr Aoun's office later said that the national and diplomatic campaign in the country over the past days demanding Mr Hariri's return "has produced positive results".

Cardinal el-Rai told reporters at Beirut's international airport that Mr Hariri's return would restore normality in Lebanon.

He heads the Maronite sect, Lebanon's largest Christian community and the Middle East's largest Catholic church, which enjoys wide influence in the country.

"The Lebanese people have been waiting for him (Hariri) to return because the situation has come to a stop and the Lebanese people have been unsettled," Cardinal el-Rai said.

"They (the Lebanese) will not rest until he returns so that life returns to normal.

"We will carry these concerns to the king and crown prince and wish well."

Saudi Arabia has been demanding that Hezbollah play no role in future government, accusing the group of supporting anti-Saudi Yemen rebels known as Houthis.

Hezbollah and the Houthis deny that the Lebanese group is carrying out anti-Saudi activities in Yemen.

The US, France and Britain have all expressed strong support for Lebanon's stability and sovereignty.


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