Lebanon’s absent prime minister arrived in France on Saturday morning after two weeks in Saudi Arabia, a mysterious stay that touched off intense speculation that he was being held against his will, reports The New York Times.
The prime minister, Saad Hariri, who has not publicly explained the nature of his stay in Saudi Arabia, met with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for lunch at the Élysée Palace and confirmed that he would travel to Beirut later in the week.
The meeting with Mr. Macron came hours after a phone call between Mr. Macon and the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, the French president’s office said. Officials said that Mr. Aoun had thanked Mr. Macron for “France’s actions in favor of Lebanon” and confirmed that Mr. Hariri would be in Beirut for Lebanon’s Independence Day holiday, which is Wednesday.
Mr. Hariri later said in short statements to the news media that he would announce his position on the crisis in his country after holding talks with Mr. Aoun, according to Reuters. He thanked France for the “positive political role” it was playing in the Middle East.
“With regard to the political situation in Lebanon, I will go to Beirut in the coming days, I will participate in the independence celebrations, and it is there that I will make known my position on these subjects after meeting President Aoun,” Mr. Hariri was quoted as saying.
Mr. Hariri’s office said on Saturday that his wife, Lara, and his eldest son, Houssam, would be present at a lunch in the Lebanese prime minister’s honor at the Élysée Palace. Mr. Hariri’s wife had accompanied him on the flight from Saudi Arabia, and his son was said to have flown in from Britain.
Mr. Hariri’s two younger children, a 16-year-old daughter, Loulwa, and a 12-year-old son, Abdulaziz, did not appear in television footage of his arrival. The two have been attending school in Saudi Arabia and could have stayed behind for that reason, but their apparent absence was an obstacle to ending concerns that Mr. Hariri was not acting freely. It left room for speculation that the Saudis had pressured Mr. Hariri to leave them in the country as leverage.
Mr. Hariri announced on Nov. 4 from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that he was stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister, but officials in Lebanon have said that his departure would not take effect until he delivered his resignation in person in Beirut.
Mr. Hariri’s unexpected trip and resignation unsettled the Middle East, setting off a political crisis in Lebanon and even raising fears of war. Saudi Arabia was widely seen as pressuring Mr. Hariri to resign as part of its escalating regional feud with Iran and its effort to isolate Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that is part of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government.
Mr. Hariri said he feared for his safety in Lebanon.
With European diplomats scrambling to defuse the crisis, France seized the role of mediator. Mr. Macron made a surprise visit to Riyadh on Nov. 9. A week later, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, met Mr. Hariri in the Saudi capital.
France has strong ties to Lebanon, where it was a former colonial ruler, and to the Hariri family.
“It’s an occasion for France to show that it can be an intermediary and have a role in the crises of the Middle East,” Rima Tarabay, an adviser on European affairs for Mr. Hariri, said in a phone interview.
But Ms. Tarabay added that the crisis went beyond Mr. Hariri’s announced resignation, which has plunged the political situation of Lebanon in uncertainty.
“We are facing a very complex situation, not specifically tied to Saad’s personal issue, but regarding what is going to happen next,” Ms. Tarabay said, raising concerns about the potential “resurgence of violence in the region, and a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
At a European Union summit meeting on Friday, Mr. Macron told journalists that France did not want to choose sides in the Middle East, adding that “the role of France is to talk to everyone.” However, he urged Iran to pursue a “less aggressive regional strategy.”
On Saturday, Mr. Hariri met at his residence in France with two of his closest advisers, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk and Nader Hariri, a senior aide. Many of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers had been out of touch or only in rare contact with him during his Saudi stay.
At 1.10 am on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hariri wrote on Twitter that he was “on the way to the airport.” His tweet mentioned Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister of Germany, who had asked whether the Saudis were holding Mr. Hariri.