Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is free to leave Saudi Arabia “when he pleases”, the kingdom said Thursday, rejecting accusations from Beirut that he was being held in Riyadh following his shock resignation.
Hariri has been in the Saudi capital since announcing there on November 4 that he was stepping down.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun this week accused Saudi authorities of “detaining” the premier.
Aoun said Thursday that Hariri’s decision to accept an invitation to travel to France could be the “start of a solution” to the crisis sparked by his resignation.
Speculation has swirled around the fate of Hariri, who is a dual Saudi citizen.
But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh that Hariri was free to leave “when he pleases”.
Jubeir is the highest ranking Saudi official to comment on the situation.
Aoun has refused to accept the prime minister’s resignation from abroad.
“We hope that the crisis is over and Hariri’s acceptance of the invitation to go to France is the start of a solution,” Aoun said on the official presidential Twitter account.
“I am awaiting the return of Prime Minister Hariri from Paris for us to decide the next step with regards to the government,” Aoun added.
France visit ‘not exile’
The announcement that Hariri had accepted an invitation to travel to France and meet President Emmanuel Macron came from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday during a visit to Riyadh.
“He will come to France and the prince has been informed,” Le Drian told reporters, referring to powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with whom he held talks the night before.
Asked about the date of the visit for talks, Le Drian replied: “Mr. Hariri’s schedule is a matter for Mr. Hariri.”
Hariri in an interview on Sunday had vowed to return to Lebanon in a matter of days.
Hariri also left open the possibility that he may withdraw his resignation if certain conditions are met – in particular an end to the involvement of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah in regional conflicts.
The French president’s office said on Wednesday that Hariri and his family had been invited to France for a “few days” but that did not mean he would stay there in exile.
Macron has stressed that Hariri should be able to return to Lebanon to confirm or withdraw his resignation in person.
Common stance on Iran
In his resignation statement, Hariri accused Iran and its ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilising the broader region.
Hariri’s resignation came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in power struggles in hotspots such as Syria and Yemen.
Many observers saw his stepping down as a power play of Riyadh against Tehran.
Le Drian raised concern over Iran’s role in the region.
At a press conference with Jubeir on Thursday, he echoed Riyadh’s concerns over Iranian “intervention in regional crises” and “hegemonic” intentions.
“I’m thinking specifically about Iran’s ballistic programme,” Le Drian added.
France has however sought to maintain a nuanced position in the region.
Macron, on his first state visit to the Middle East last week, called for vigilance towards Tehran over its ballistic missile programme and regional activities.
But he cautioned against creating a “new front” in a region already fraught with conflicts, including the war in Yemen.
The Arab League is to hold an extraordinary meeting next Sunday at the request of Saudi Arabia to discuss alleged “violations” committed by Iran in the region.