Latest update : 2017-11-16

French President Emmanuel Macron has invited Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri and his family to France, the Élysée Palace said in a statement on Wednesday. Hariri has been in Saudi Arabia since he resigned unexpectedly on November 4.

France’s Élysée presidential palace said the invitation was made after Macron spoke by telephone with both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Hariri.

Lebanon’s erstwhile leader will arrive in France “in the coming days”, a source at the French presidency told AFP.

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Macron later clarified that the invitation was not an offer of political exile, but merely an invitation made in “friendship” for Hariri to spend “a few days with his family” in France.

Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation on November 4, citing Iran’s grip on the country and alluding to threats to his life.

“I announce my resignation from the post of prime minister,” Hariri said in a speech broadcast by the Al-Arabiya news network, in which he also said Lebanon had been taken hostage by Hezbollah.

“I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” he said from the Saudi capital Riyadh. Hariri holds both Lebanese and Saudi citizenship.

The surprise move risked plunging the small and already fragile country deeper into political turmoil.

Hariri’s party has since demanded that he return from the kingdom immediately.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, ordered all of its citizens to “immediately” depart Lebanon amid heightened tensions with Hezbollah, which enjoys support from Saudi arch-rival Iran. A brief statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency also warned its citizens against travel to the country.

Lebanon’s divided government

Under a power-sharing agreement that ended the country’s civil war, the post of Lebanon’s president is designated for a Maronite Christian while that of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni and the president of the parliament is a Shiite.

But the country is also sharply divided between a camp loyal to Saudi Arabia – led by Hariri, a Sunni Muslim – and a camp loyal to Shiite Iran headed by Hezbollah. President Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 after the presidential post remained vacant for two years, is a close ally of Hezbollah.

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Hezbollah is also a vital ally for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war the Damascus regime is waging against the Islamic State group and armed opposition movements.

The group is the only Lebanese party to have kept its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war. Its arsenal has since grown exponentially and now outstrips that of the nation’s own armed forces. It now claims that it is the only credible rampart against neighbouring Israel, but its refusal to disarm has created a deep divide in Lebanon.

Hariri, who was ousted as prime minister in 2011 after Hezbollah and its allies pulled their ministers from the cabinet, spent the next three years in self-imposed exile between France and Saudi Arabia until he returned to Lebanon in 2014. He was named prime minister in November 2016.

Hariri’s father, former premier Rafik Hariri, was killed in a car bombing in Beirut in 2005. The bombing was widely blamed on Hezbollah but the group has always denied responsibility for the elder Hariri’s death.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)