Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri may soon be able to clarify whether he really means to resign, after French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday invited him to France.
The surprise move came 11 days after Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh, and hours after Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, openly accused Saudi Arabia of holding him captive.
A source in the Elysee Palace said Hariri was expected in France “in the coming days,” adding that his family was also invited.
Hariri’s unexpected resignation has plunged Lebanon into political crisis.
The Sunni Muslim prime minister, a Saudi ally, said he feared for his life. He accused Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Shiite Hezbollah movement, of destabilizing his country and the Arab region.
The move was widely seen as reflecting the desire of Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to put pressure on rival regional power Iran and its allies.
But with growing speculation that Hariri was no longer a free agent, it kicked off intense diplomatic activity amid concern for Lebanon’s hard-won and fragile political stability.
The country suffered a sectarian civil war between 1975 and 1990, and has feared that the conflict in neighbouring Syria could spark new trouble.
Hezbollah’s armed wing has taken a lead role backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Lebanon hosts about a million Syrian refugees.
The Elysee said the French invitation came after Macron spoke to Hariri and Mohammed bin Salman.
If Hariri is accompanied by his family members, who are currently in Saudi Arabia, it will further persuade the Lebanese that he is really free to speak his mind.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is currently in Saudi Arabia on a two-day trip, during which he was initially expected to meet Hariri.
France was the former colonial power in Lebanon and retains close links with the country.
Earlier on Wednesday, Aoun – a Hezbollah ally who had previously called for clarification and refused to accept Hariri’s resignation – outright accused Saudi Arabia of detaining him.
“We consider him to be held and detained, contrary to the Vienna Convention,” Aoun said in a tweet on the official Lebanese presidency account.
Aoun’s remarks came a day after Hariri wrote on Twitter that he was “fine” and would soon return home from Saudi Arabia, adding: “Let us calm down.”
In a Sunday television interview, Hariri had rejected the growing claims that he was being held by Riyadh and promised to return to Lebanon “very soon.”
Hariri hinted in the interview that he could go back on his resignation if Hezbollah stopped its involvement in regional conflicts.
Riyadh has dismissed speculation that Hariri was being held against his will as “preposterous.”
Saudi Arabia has long feared Iran’s intentions in the region.
Its concerns have increased since Iran-aligned Houthi rebels seized the capital of neighbouring Yemen in 2014 and since the 2015 deal over Iran’s nuclear programme, which led to the lifting of international sanctions.
Saudi Arabia is currently leading a military coalition against the Houthis, in a conflict that has seen large-scale civilian casualties in Yemen as well as rampant hunger and disease.