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World

Saad Hariri Returns To Lebanon As Saudi Arabia And Iran Vie For Influence

NOEL KING, HOST:

And just about two weeks ago now, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said he was stepping down. He announced this oddly in a televised address from Saudi Arabia, which made a lot of people wonder why. Hariri suggested that Iranian meddling in his country was part of the reason, and that raised concerns about this intensifying rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran with Lebanon caught in the middle. Well, Hariri is now back in Beirut, and he says he is un-resigning. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: So, Ruth, just a lot going on here. Why did Hariri un-resign?

SHERLOCK: Well, he said he had a change of heart after he met the Lebanese president who begged him to stay on. He said, you know, at least wait to resign until we have enough time to have a dialogue and try to resolve the issues that made you want to quit in the first place. But diplomats I've spoken with - and it's widely - generally, widely believed now that Saudi forced him to resign and that his return is really a way of - for everybody to save face, that the Saudis were kind of shocked by the international backlash. You know, the U.S. and France and various European countries said, you know, this won't do. We need to have Hariri back. And so they're trying to ease him back in and sort of move on.

KING: Lebanon is not an uncomplicated country, to put it mildly.

SHERLOCK: Right.

KING: I'm wondering that - what is the response from ordinary people on the street? What are Lebanese saying about all this?

SHERLOCK: So, well, yesterday, I went to Hariri's residence where he was speaking for the first time, and there was a huge crowd gathered. Here's what they sounded like.

(CHEERING)

SHERLOCK: And so his supporters are delighted. There was shouting and screaming. And what's interesting about his speech as well - one of the reasons they were so delighted is that his speech was sort of more conciliatory than before. So when he'd resigned from Saudi Arabia, he attacked Hezbollah. And Hezbollah is now part of the Lebanese government. And there's been this sort of fragile coalition government under Hariri. But if he'd left, the fear was that the government would collapse and that there might even be war here. So with him back and with him talking now about trying to kind of bring everybody together, there's a profound sense of relief here. Let me - here's what one lady I spoke with said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So yeah - so she's telling me that she feels secure, and that now that Hariri's back, she hopes that there can be unity in this country. And it's not so much Hariri himself as what he represents - this coalition - this kind of government that's trying to keep Lebanon together. So she is - but she did say Saad is life for us. So it's a very important moment for Lebanese people here.

KING: What about the people who don't like Saad al-Haririr very much?

SHERLOCK: Yes. Well, you know, it's - that's the thing. This is a country that has a lot of conflict. You know, there's different factions supporting different people, and it's now being torn apart by Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it's causing this regional power struggle. The issue here is that all the same problems that caused Saudi Arabia if they did, in fact, coerce Hariri to resign, still remain. So whilst they may have averted the situation at the moment, you know, the country is far from secure in the long run.

KING: Well, we're glad you're covering it for us. NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.