(Bloomberg) -- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose sudden resignation in Saudi Arabia sparked fears of an escalating regional conflict between the kingdom and Iran, will travel to France on Saturday after receiving an invitation from President Emmanuel Macron.
Hariri, who hasn’t returned to Lebanon since his announcement on Nov. 4, will meet Macron on Saturday in Paris, according to the French president’s office. He met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday in Riyadh.
Macron told France24 television on Wednesday that after speaking with Hariri and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “we came to an agreement that he’d be invited for several days to France.” Hariri intends to return to Lebanon eventually, a French official said.
Macron added a stop in Saudi Arabia to an international trip late last week in a sign of growing international concern over Hariri’s surprise move and its implications for regional peace. Lebanese President Michel Aoun called Hariri a Saudi “hostage” on Wednesday, and said the developments are “an act of aggression against us and our independence.”
In limited public comments and on Twitter, Hariri has sought to dispel speculation that Saudi Arabia demanded he resign because he wouldn’t confront Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group that plays a key role in Lebanon’s fragile government. The group is considered a terrorist organization by countries including Israel and the U.S., and it has provided crucial military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s war.
French officials have said they still regard Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister since the country’s president rejected his resignation on the grounds that it must be handed over on Lebanese soil. Macron said that inviting Hariri was a “gesture of friendship from France to contribute to a return to calm and stability.”
“We need a stable Lebanon, a strong Lebanon, and we need leaders who are free to make their choices,” he said.
The Saudi crown prince will visit France early next year, Le Drian said at a news conference in Riyadh on Thursday.
As the French initiative unfolded, Aoun said on Twitter that he “hopes the crisis is over.” The “door to a resolution opened with Prime Minister Hariri accepting an invitation to visit France,” he said.
Hariri has reiterated his intention to return to Lebanon “as I have promised you,” a pledge he first made on Sunday in a television interview with his family’s Future TV.
Hariri will make his decision depending on “his own assessment of the security situation,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh on Thursday at a news conference with his French counterpart, denying that Hariri was a captive.
His resignation has raised tensions in Lebanon, historically a battleground for proxy conflicts, as the showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran increasingly dominates regional politics. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon, raising fears that conflict could be imminent.
The international developments followed Saudi Arabia’s controversial domestic decision to detain princes and billionaires accused of corruption by the government. Some analysts have described the development as a power grab by Crown Prince Mohammed. Saudi officials have rejected those accusations.
In televised comments also aired Wednesday, Aoun said Hariri isn’t free to “express himself” and “we now have the right to take the measures that will get him out of there.”
The Lebanese president sent Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on a tour of European capitals to lobby on the government’s behalf. In remarks from Rome, Bassil said the latest developments jeopardize the stability of Lebanon and, by extension, the region.
“If Saudi Arabia has a problem with Iran or with Hezbollah, they have to solve it with Iran, not with Lebanon and not with all the Lebanese,” Bassil said at a news conference with his Italian counterpart.
Hariri and his family have deep connections to France, dating back to a friendship forged in the 1980s between Saad’s father, Rafiq, and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, who went on to become president of France. In 2005, then-President Chirac and his wife flew to Beirut to pay condolences less than 48 hours after Rafiq was killed in a car bombing. Chirac then cut relations with Syria, which he blamed for the attack.
Chirac later lived in a Hariri-owned property in Paris. Saad kept close relations with Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, with the latter awarding him a Commander of the Legion of Honor, one notch below the highest national decoration.
A United Nations-backed tribunal has charged Hezbollah members with Rafiq’s killing, but the group denies involvement.
“There is a quasi consensus in the world that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization of the first order, and it needs to respect the law and it needs to respect the sovereignty of Lebanon,” Saudi Foreign Minister Jubeir said.
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