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Saudi Arabia has called on its citizens to leave Lebanon “as soon as possible”, after days of escalating rhetoric against a country at the centre of a deepening regional crisis.
Thursday’s travel warning called on Saudi visitors and residents of Lebanon to leave and advised nationals not to visit the country. Lebanon is a prime target as tensions escalate between Saudi Arabia and regional rival Iran because it is home to Hizbollah, the Tehran-backed Shia militia that has grown increasingly powerful across the region in recent years.
The crisis for Lebanon began when its prime minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday while in Riyadh, apparently under pressure from Saudi officials. He has yet to return to his country and a growing number of Lebanese and regional officials suspect the long-time Saudi Arabian ally is being held in Riyadh by force and are demanding his return.
Saudi Arabia has signalled it will forcefully push for change in Lebanon, where it once wielded great political influence but has increasingly lost that to Iran and Hizbollah.
Thamer al-Sabhan, Riyadh’s minister of Gulf affairs, this week warned that Lebanon, whose government includes members of Hizbollah, would be considered to have declared war on Saudi Arabia for “remaining under this party of evil and terrorism”.
Within an hour of the Saudi Arabian travel ban, Mr Sabhan wrote on Twitter: “All measures taken are being done successively with continuous and more aggressive escalation until matters return to normal.”
The warnings come as Emmanuel Macron, French president, was set to travel to Riyadh on Thursday for an impromptu meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince.
Speaking in Dubai after a two-day trip to the United Arab Emirates, Mr Macron said it was vital to preserve the “stability of the region” which also meant the “stability and integrity of Lebanon”. France has deep historical ties with the Mediterranean country, which was once a French colony.
“I have heard very hard positions on Iran — which I don’t share — so it’s important to have a structured discussion, so that I understand the decisions carried out domestically, and so that we can exchange on Iran . . . Yemen . . . and Lebanon. And I will say how essential the stability and integrity of Lebanon is to me,” Mr Macron said.
The French president said “informal contacts” had been established with Mr Hariri while a spokesperson for the foreign ministry could not immediately comment on rumours of a meeting between the former prime minister and the French ambassador in Riyadh.
Mr Macron said: “My wish is that Lebanese politicians can move freely in Lebanon, which means demilitarising part of Lebanon and a demanding position towards those who seek to destabilise Lebanon.”
Most regional observers believe Mr Hariri was forced out by Riyadh due to its concerns over Hizbollah’s rising influence and frustrated that Mr Hariri’s government provided legal cover for the Shia group.
Mr Hariri, who also has Saudi citizenship and owns a business in the country, may have been caught up in the dramatic purge and arrest of businessmen and princes in Saudi Arabia that also began on Saturday. Regional diplomats have said they are unsure of his condition, but believe he is not completely free.
Lebanese politicians from both sides of the country’s political divide have started to speak out about his absence. His own Future party, relatively silent since his resignation, came out on Thursday to demand his return.
“The return of . . . Hariri is necessary in order to restore the internal and external balance of Lebanon with full respect to Lebanese legitimacy,” it said.
Lebanon’s foreign minister, who is in a party aligned with Hizbollah and a rival to Mr Hariri, also demanded his return in statements released on Twitter.
Reuters news agency reported that two senior Lebanese officials now consider Mr Hariri a captive in Saudi Arabia. “We will work with [foreign] states to return him to Beirut,” an official was quoted as saying.
This post originally appeared on Financial Times