Tomorrow the outgoing Lebanese prime minister is set to leave Saudi Arabia for France. Doubts remain about his future and that of his government. President Aoun’s protection boosts the bond with his "adoptive son". The Saudis maintain their goals on Lebanon as Europe, the United States and Iran want Lebanon’s stability.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – France did it! Almost a diplomatic master stroke. Two weeks after resigning live on the Saudi al-Arabiya channel in Riyadh (4 November), under murky circumstances, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is expected in Paris on Saturday for lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Elysée Palace announced.
Why such honour? That is not clear yet. The history of French mediation for Saad Hariri has yet to be written. But the story includes President Macron’s impromptu visit to Riyadh, and the two trips by his Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, as well as countless contacts in Beirut itself.
For the moment, what is certain is that France has made it clear to the Saudis, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that Saad Hariri was an indispensable and "solid ally". The traditional ties between Lebanon and France, based on friendship, mutual understanding and interest, have certainly contributed to this happy outcome.
What is also clear is that Saudi Arabia seems to have lifted the restrictions it imposed on the head of the Lebanese government two weeks ago. The latter, who also holds Saudi nationality, on three occasions in two weeks, announced that he would be in Beirut "in two or three days" but never followed up.
Admittedly, Saudi officials have said that these restrictions were a fable invented in Beirut, but when the Lebanese president, at the risk of a serious diplomatic incident, says that people going in and out of Mr Hariri’s Riyadh residence were frisked, little more can be said. He would have never dared to say such a thing had there not been something irregular in the conditions under which the Lebanese prime minister was held in the past two weeks.
Despite the age gap, a strong friendship has developed between the two men over the past few months, this according to sources close to the presidential palace, to the extent that the Lebanese president, who is in his eighties, has really taken Saad Hariri, 48, under his wings. The relationship explains why Michel Aoun felt so strongly, at a personal level, about the affair. According to the sources, Michel Aoun showed a "protective reflex" towards the prime minister, beyond the outrage of seeing his prime minister treated in such a way. This personal involvement justifies, or so the sources say, the president’s decision to put on his battle-dress to "liberate" at any cost a man he has come to love like a son.
Still, since the prime minister trip to France was announced on Thursday, the president’s tune has changed. Michel Aoun is now reassuring, saying that "the Hariri crisis" is being solved and that there are "solutions to all problems". Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, after visiting all the major European capitals, came back to Lebanon, to follow the course of events, whilst urging the new ambassador of Lebanon to Paris to keep his eyes open.
However violent and illegitimate the “Hariri affair” was, it still managed to test the compromise that led to Michel Aoun’s election as president and the installation of Saad Hariri in the Prime Minister’s Office. Can this compromise be salvaged, and at what price? What could replace it? Are we doomed to inaction? So many questions that are hard to answer yes or no.
Ultimately, Lebanon as a whole has been "taken hostage" by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Caught up, after a year of honeymoon, by this rivalry, its future now depends upon it. It is not for Lebanon’s beautiful eyes that Iran will revise its policy of cryptic military expansion in the Arab world, especially in Yemen, where Hezbollah has deployed three to four hundred military instructors. And it is no longer for Lebanon’s beautiful eyes that Mohammad Ben Salman will turn a blind eye on a missile fired from Yemen on Saudi Arabia, or on the crackdown on the Shia population of Bahrain or the preparation of a terrorist attack in Kuwait.
These considerations will undoubtedly be at the heart of the exchanges between Beirut and Paris that will follow Saad Hariri’s arrival in France. How long will Mr Hariri stay in the French capital? Will he submit his resignation from France and if so, how will he conduct ongoing government business? Will he still return to Lebanon, where, according to his statement, his personal safety is not guaranteed? Will a constitutional exception allow him to do so from abroad, as the president has implied? Faced with such uncertainties, the only certain thing Lebanon now has is that Europe and the United States, as well as Iran, want nothing to undermine its relative stability and the revival of its institutions, including the first parliamentary elections since 2009, set for May 2018.