This sensational Middle East episode has, for once, nothing to do with political or religious rivalries involving either Iran or Hizballah. So why did Saad Hariri step down as Lebanese Prime Minister in Riyadh on Nov. 4 and what is at the bottom of French President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign minister Jean Yves Le-Drian’s active involvement in the case? The clue to these riddles is to be found on the floor of the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Riyadh, where Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd sleeps on a mattress. He was detained there by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman,with scores of Saudi Arabia’s rich and powerful in his capacity as Saudi partner in the absconding Lebanese prime minister’s extensive business interests in the kingdom.
DEBKAfile offers an exclusive blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to the Hariri bombshell:
- On Nov, 4, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had 500 high-ranking princes, officials and ultra-rich businessmen detained on “corruption charges.”
- On the same day, Saad Hariri boarded his private plane and flew to Riyadh, announcing he was stepping down as prime minister after discovering a plot on his life by Iran and Hizballah.
That claim was a cover-up. He had in fact been summoned by the Saudi Crown Prince for Hariri to present himself at once in Riyadh, else the Hariri family’s substantial property and bank accounts would be impounded, along with those of the detained princes and multibillionaires.
- The family has had a long and profitable alliance with the oil kingdom. Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s late father and predecessor as prime minister of Lebanon, who was assassinated in 2005, founded the Saudi branch of the French giant construction firm Oger in 1969. A year later, he set up a Saudi construction company called Saudi Oger Ltd. which grew into one of the biggest and most successful construction company in the kingdom. The firm made sure to maintain business connections with important members of the royal family. The most prominent was Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, scion of a former king. From world-class tycoon, this prince on Nov. 4, found himself reduced to one of hundreds of noble and important detainees.
- According to our sources, the Crown Prince has assessed Hariri’s Saudi business partner as worth some $7 billion, which he has decided that he and their partnership owe to the Saudi state treasury and which they are now being told to surrender without delay. Since the family’s Saudi business empire bankrolls the former Lebanese prime minister’s prominent political standing in Beirut, Hariri could not afford to ignore the Crown Prince’s ultimatum. When his princely partner was arrested, Hariri flew to Riyadh to salvage what he could of their financial concerns.
- Notwithstanding the denials that Hariri was being held against his will, the truth is that he was held in some sort of house arrest. But only his high position as a top Lebanese leader – albeit a holder of dual Saudi nationality – and reluctance to gratify Tehran and Hizballah and justify their allegations – saved him from being locked up with the 500 Saudi high-ups at the Carlton Ritz.
- The French president intervened in the affair to rescue the longstanding French financial stake in the Hariri firms, without jeopardizing French-Saudi trade relations.
- Negotiations between French Foreign Minister Jean Yves le-Drian and Prince Muhammad resulted in permission for the former Lebanese prime minister to travel to Paris under the protection of the French secret service, the while France undertook to quietly negotiate a deal for the Hariri family companies to surrender a substantial sum to the Saudi state.