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How a rift between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon could mean trouble for the entire region

Earlier this month, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri shocked the region by announcing his resignation. Now back home from Saudi Arabia and his Middle East tour, Hariri says he’s postponing his resignation at the behest of president Michel Aoun. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson joined Judy Woodruff to discuss the regional implications of Saudi-Lebanese tensions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lebanon is a nation accustomed to political turmoil and intrigue. But even so, the last several weeks have been head-spinning. A regional drama has been playing out, centered on Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his on-again, off-again resignation.

    For more on this and its implications across the Middle East, I'm joined by NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson, from her home office in Beirut.

    Jane, welcome. We appreciate your joining us on this Thanksgiving.

    First of all, is Prime Minister Hariri coming back into office after all? And, if so, what was with the announcement of resignation a few weeks ago?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It was a remarkable turnaround, Judy, and one that still has left a lot of questions in its wake. Of course, it was November 4th when he appeared on television from Saudi Arabia with a shock resignation. After that, we saw this bizarre, basically tour de force play out where he tried to persuade the public through a few tweets he wasn't being held against his will in Saudi Arabia, even though the president of Lebanon eventually came out and said it did seem as though he was.

    He went on tour after giving a fiery speech against Iran and Hezbollah. Eventually, returning to Lebanon just in time for Wednesday's independence day parade, there's a military parade here and, at that parade, he did speak. He said that, on the request of the president, he was now postponing his resignation, not completely canceling it, but saying he would postpone it for talks. He gave very little other information at this point.

    So, people now know that they at least have a prime minister for now but have very little other answers to many more questions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it's not clear why he did this in the first place. Why he's turning it around. Were the Saudis holding him? We know you told us that they still — his children are still in Saudi Arabia.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    His two youngest children are still in Saudi Arabia. The reason for that is being given that they are still in school. There's a lot of speculation, as you can imagine, over here in this part of the world that that could potentially be held as collateral.

    Now, what has helped, what seems to have helped in this crisis is the international involvement. French president Macron even traveled to meet with those involved to try to push for a solution, and he was eventually allowed to leave with his wife and go to Paris. But it is believed that, yes, two of his children are still in Saudi Arabia.

    Now, what's significant as well, Judy, is that he gave the reason for resigning his post as Iran's very strong influence in the region, in Lebanon is too strong, talked about things like how this was a huge danger in the region. Now, of course, Saad Hariri being from the Sunni block, would have been certainly in opposition to Hezbollah, but he had entered into a government with Hezbollah, and this kind of fiery retort was not typical of him and certainly not at this time, just when we get the government up and running here in Lebanon.

    So, that has led many to believe that those are really words that could have even been written by the Saudis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and many people are looking at this, experts as part of the larger rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and that this may have been a move by, clearly seems to be a move by the Saudis to take Iran's influence down in Lebanon.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It would appear to be that this was a chess move by the very sort of aggressive and very ambitious crown prince in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. This is seen as an attempt by the Saudis to really try to disrupt a government that they are frustrated with because Hezbollah are so strong, they're represented in this government. It's something that the Saudis are losing patience with, what they see as a normalization of Hezbollah and Iran's influence here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jane Ferguson, reporting on this continuing — the situation continuing to develop there in Lebanon. Thank you, Jane.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you.

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