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'New York Times' Reporter On The Lebanese Prime Minister's Relationship With Saudi Arabia

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You may recall last month's drama concerning Lebanon's prime minister. Saad Hariri turned up in Saudi Arabia, where he announced his resignation on Saudi television. Many Lebanese thought he was being detained there, and the country's president insisted he return home and resign in person. Well, eventually, Hariri did leave Saudi Arabia. And three weeks ago, he rescinded his resignation. The story was strange, even by the standards of Lebanese politics, which are often full of intrigue involving neighboring countries and regional powers.

Reporter Maria Abi-Habib is one of the New York Times staffers who worked on sorting this one out and telling what the Times describes as the backstory to Hariri's long, strange sojourn in Saudi Arabia. Thanks for joining us.

MARIA ABI-HABIB: Thank you for having me and merry Christmas.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Saad Hariri has both Lebanese and Saudi citizenship. He has a home in Saudi Arabia, and he was backed by the Saudis. Given all that, how unusual was the summons that he received to show up at the Saudi royal offices at 8:30 one morning in early November?

ABI-HABIB: Well, it wouldn't be unusual by any, you know, stretch because he is a man that has vested interests in Saudi Arabia. His family home is there. His children were there at the time, as was his wife. Mr. Hariri has been Saudi Arabia's point man in Lebanon for about a decade or so. So that's not unusual but then what unfolded afterwards was very unusual by any, you know, know, diplomatic stretch.

SIEGEL: One measure of the surprise here was you write that Hariri showed up at the royal offices in jeans because he thought he was going camping with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

ABI-HABIB: That's correct. Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he's known, he's been known to go on camping trips with, you know, those that are close to him, including political allies, particularly the man who's known as Mohammed bin Zayed, who is pretty much leading the United Arab Emirates government at this point. He's kind of the brains behind the government, Abu Dhabi. And the UAE is Saudi Arabia's closest ally. And together, they're really trying to reshape the Middle East. And part of that is to counter what they see as a threat Iran, which I think most citizens would identify also as a threat. The Iranians have been very, very aggressive in reshaping the Middle East in their way, and they've also outmaneuvered pretty much everybody from those in Washington to those in Riyadh.

SIEGEL: So if it wasn't just to go camping, what was it that the Saudis wanted from Saad Hariri when they summoned him to their offices?

ABI-HABIB: So they're very upset with the fact that Mr. Hariri had seen one of Iran's top religious leaders just days before. They were also very upset by what they said was Mr. Hariri providing political cover to Hezbollah, which is the Iranian proxy militant and political group in Lebanon. And they said that they kind of demanded that Mr. Hariri put more pressure on Hezbollah. And, you know, Mr. Hariri had before opposed Hezbollah, but like many in Lebanon, kind of felt like, look, we don't love Hezbollah. We agree that it's a problem. However, Hezbollah is the only way to stem the threat from Israel, which has occupied Lebanese territory even before Hezbollah existed.

The second argument would be we're not going to burn down Lebanon in order to counter Hezbollah. The army is not up to task because it's not been funded for years. We see that the only way that we can have Lebanon exist as a country and function is to kind of cut a power-sharing deal with Hezbollah. And like many countries across the Middle East, Lebanon's very tired of being in this proxy war between Saudi and Iran. And at this point, they just feel that these problems are very intractable and beyond Lebanon's, you know, means.

SIEGEL: I just want to go back in time a little bit. From what you and your colleague, Anne Barnard, and other reporters at the Times have been able to piece together, when Saad Hariri was in Saudi Arabia after he'd made this televised announcement of his resignation, some people claimed he was being detained or that he was under house arrest. What have you been able to figure out? Was he effectively a prisoner in his own mansion in Saudi Arabia at that point?

ABI-HABIB: Well, at some point, he was unable to actually access the main residence of his mansion where his family were in Riyadh. And he was forced to stay in the guest house. And he did this famous interview with the very famous TV anchor from that residence, which would be strange. It also seemed at one point when he returned to Lebanon, the Twitter sphere was remarking on this photo that came out from the Lebanese government where Mr. Hariri's shoes were several sizes too big for his feet which would suggest that he didn't have access to his clothing. So everything would suggest that he was, in fact, forcefully detained to a degree.

SIEGEL: So was it - since Hariri wouldn't do what the Saudis wanted him to do, they said, well, here, do this instead, here's your letter of resignation, go and read it on television?

ABI-HABIB: Well, he agreed to read the letter. And the Saudis to this day insist that Mr. Hariri resigned of his own, you know, will. But at the end of the day, as soon as he was back in Lebanon, he rescinded his resignation. So I think that that says a lot. Western diplomats who saw Mr. Hariri walked away thinking that he wasn't being able to act within his own means. And diplomats that I spoke to were very concerned about this because this would fly in the face of any diplomatic norms.

SIEGEL: Putting the squeeze on the Lebanese prime minister was just one of Prince Mohammed bin Salman's several overt powerplays in recent months. Is he seen as a tough guy who is getting his way in the region or someone who's stumbling through life with all of these very overt gestures?

ABI-HABIB: Well, I mean, I think that it depends on what audience he's playing to. I mean, wars tend to be kind of popular domestically, whether we want to admit to it or not. It definitely brings nations together behind a leader. And among young Saudis, they feel like these old kings that were in power before weren't willing to be aggressive enough to counter Iran and that MBS is. Regionally, it hasn't really worked. I mean, you have Qatar - which seemingly forced a change in regime in Qatar. And that kind of blew up in their face. And then also, Qatar has just become closer to Iran as a result. So fine, he might be, you know, shoring up support domestically, but regionally, it's pretty chaotic and not very fruitful foreign policy that MBS has embarked upon.

SIEGEL: Reporter Maria Abi-Habib of The New York Times. Thanks for talking with us today and merry Christmas.

ABI-HABIB: Thank you. Merry Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZE ACTION'S "SPACE DISCO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.