BEIRUT — The head of Lebanon’s powerful militant group Hezbollah accused Saudi Arabia Sunday of forcing the country’s prime minister to resign after less than a year in his post, as Bahrain ordered its citizens in Lebanon to “leave immediately” and banned travel there.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri stunned Lebanon and its leaders Saturday when he announced his resignation in a televised statement recorded in Saudi Arabia, citing Iranian and Hezbollah meddling in Arab affairs.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful figures, said the statement was “dictated and forced upon” Hariri and called for calm as Lebanese leaders consult over next steps.
Hariri’s abrupt resignation has set off anxious chatter about Lebanon’s unstable political configuration and put it at the center of a spiraling regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It has also raised worries that the Gulf kingdom, under the leadership of its increasingly bullish Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, will squeeze Lebanon as a way to get to Iran’s proxy Hezbollah.
“We need to wait and see why Saudi Arabia obligated the head of the government to resign,” said Nasrallah.
Bahrain’s travel ban against Lebanon portends broader prohibitions by Gulf states against the tiny Mediterranean country, which depends on Gulf investment and tourism to keep its economy running.
A harsher package of sanctions would be in line with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s abrupt trade boycott with Qatar over what Gulf states see as Doha’s unfavorably warm ties with Tehran. The boycott has been in place since June. GCC member states warned against travel to Lebanon in 2012 and again in 2016.
Hariri, who read his statement haltingly and glanced frequently off camera, has not been seen in Lebanon since Saturday, prompting speculation he may be held in Saudi Arabia against his will.
He posted a photo on Twitter Sunday night from the Gulf kingdom with the newly sworn in Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Yacoub.
Still, Nasrallah said Hariri could return Thursday to meet with President Michel Aoun who by law must accept the Prime Minister’s resignation in order for it to be valid. Aoun has not indicated how he will rule.
Hariri first ascended to the Lebanese premiership in 2009 with Saudi Arabia’s backing, until Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from his Cabinet in 2011 and forced the government’s collapse. The Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah is now the chief political rival of Hariri’s Future Movement.
The 47-year old leader was appointed to the post again in 2016, ending a two-year power vacuum at the top of Lebanon’s government and raising the possibility of parliamentary elections for the first time since 2009, four years behind schedule.
Lebanon has weathered waves of assassinations and terror blasts and numerous political crises since emerging from a 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. It also survived a war with Israel in 2006 and a protracted Israeli occupation of its southern territories until 2000.
Hariri’s resignation came on the same day as a stunning lock up of over three dozen Saudi princes, ministers, and businessmen, in a move seen as squashing the internal rivalry to ascendant Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Hezbollah and its allies have been given veto power in Lebanese politics since Hezbollah forces seized the streets of Beirut in brief clashes in 2008. Their political bloc controls the largest shares of seats in Lebanon’s parliament.
Hezbollah was founded with Iranian support in 1982 to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and has since emerged as a regional power in its own right.
Lebanon, once one of the key flashpoints of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, officially declared itself neutral with respect to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
But Hezbollah fighters have poured into Syria, angering Saudi Arabia. They have been fighting alongside Iranian advisers and militias in the Syrian war, providing crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations morphed into full-fledged war.
Dozens of rebel factions in Syria are or have been backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies.
Assad and his Iranian-supported allies are now firmly in command of the war in Syria, in a humiliation to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report from Dubai, U.A.E.