BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri left Saudi Arabia for France early Saturday, two weeks after declaring his resignation from the kingdom and sparking speculation that he was forced to do so.
The surprise resignation announcement by Hariri on Nov. 4 plunged his country into turmoil and stunned the Lebanese, many of whom saw it as a sign the Sunni kingdom — the prime minister's chief ally — had decided to drag tiny Lebanon into its feud with the region's other powerhouse, the predominantly Shiite Iran. Lebanon still hasn't recognized his resignation.
In his televised announcement, Hariri cited Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. He also said he was afraid for his life.
Shortly before he left Riyadh, Saudi Arabia asked its citizens for the second time in less than two weeks to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible" given the "circumstances" there. Less than a week after Hariri resigned, Riyadh ordered its nationals to leave immediately, raising fears of more punitive actions to come amid sharp criticism from Saudi officials of Hezbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon.
The announcement early Saturday was posted on the Saudi embassy Twitter account. It came shortly after the embassy reported that it is closely following reports of an attack on two Saudi nationals in a Beirut neighborhood. There was no immediate security report of the incident. Hariri tweeted before he left Saudi Arabia that any attack on a Saudi is an attack on him personally.
Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi national, stunned Lebanon and the region when he declared his resignation from Saudi Arabia, sparking speculations he was held against his will and forced to resign.
In a series of tweets before leaving, Hariri dismissed as "rumors" and a "lie" reports that he was detained or prevented from leaving the kingdom. In a rare English tweet, Hariri named German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel when announcing that he was heading to the airport in Saudi Arabia. He apparently singled out the top German diplomat because he had criticized meddling in Lebanon's affairs.
"To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie," Hariri said. "I am on the way to the airport Mr. Sigmar Gabriel."
Before heading to the airport, Hariri met with the Saudi Crown Prince and other senior officials, according to a member of Hariri's political party and two Lebanese television stations.
He is expected to arrive in Paris Saturday morning. Local Lebanese TV said he left Riyadh with his wife. His family had lived in Riyadh for years.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Hariri will be received "with the honors due a prime minister" even though he has announced his resignation.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun accused Saudi Arabia of detaining him.
Saudi officials denied the reports, adding that Hariri was an ally. But they railed against Iran-backed Hezbollah, accusing the two of meddling in the region's affairs and backing anti-Saudi rebels in Yemen.
The resignation by Saudi-aligned Hariri raised concerns in a region already beset by conflict. Many feared Lebanon's delicate sectarian-based political system could be easily upended if the county is dragged into a battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said there will be no stability in Lebanon unless the militant group Hezbollah disarms. "This is what we hope," Adel al-Jubeir said at a press conference in Madrid with his Spanish counterpart.
It was the second day in a row that the Saudi minister railed against Hezbollah. On Thursday, he called the group a "first-class terrorist organization" that should lay down its arms and respect Lebanon's sovereignty. Saudi Arabia has already asked its nationals to leave Lebanon.
The Arab League is due to hold a meeting on Sunday in Cairo at Saudi Arabia's urging where the Lebanon crisis and Iran's role in the region are expected to be discussed. Many fear more Saudi punitive actions against Lebanon may be planned.
"My stay in the kingdom is to consult about the future of Lebanon and its relation with its Arab environs," he tweeted earlier. "All stories spreading about my sojourn and departure or that deal with the circumstances of my family are merely rumors."
Macron, speaking at an EU summit in Goteborg, Sweden, said Hariri could stay in Paris for weeks should he choose.
Macron said that Hariri "has the intention, I believe, of going to his country in the days or weeks ahead," the first time a possible timeframe has been evoked.
It was not clear what the intention of the French invitation was. Hariri also has homes in France. Some viewed the French invite as an attempt to dispel reports Hariri was detained.
France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, has been trying to mediate the crisis and Macron invited Hariri and his family to the country after his foreign minister met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the crisis.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Jeff Schaeffer and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.