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Nov 23, 6:51 AM EST

Lebanese PM Hariri assures bankers stability comes first


AP Photo
AP Photo/Hussein Malla

BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri assured regional bankers on Thursday that Lebanon's stability was his top concern, one day after walking back his shock resignation that threw the country into turmoil.

Hariri, speaking at the Arab Banking Conference in Beirut, said his government was going to prioritize Lebanon's interests over regional challenges and stressed a return to the country's official policy of "disassociation," or neutrality in regional affairs.

"Our primary concern in Lebanon is stability, and that is what we are going to focus on," said Hariri.

Hariri stunned Lebanon and the region by resigning on Nov. 4 while in Saudi Arabia, raising fears of market panic and recession.

But he told President Michel Aoun on Wednesday that he would stay on to allow for "consultations" that would seek to safeguard the tiny country's delicate political system, stretched by competing agendas in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia is seen as the guardian of Lebanon's Sunnis and is a main sponsor of its national government and military. Iran sponsors Lebanon's Shiites and mostly funnels its funds and interests through the militant group Hezbollah.

The market fears were not realized, but the events pushed the debate over foreign influence - and Hezbollah's formidable influence in Lebanon and the region - to the forefront of Lebanese politics.

"We must look at all means to reach the point where Lebanon is self-governing, in practice, and not just in rhetoric," he said at the banking conference.

The prime minister said Wednesday he would defend Lebanon's "Arab identity" and its ties with its "brotherly Arab nations" - a statement directed toward Iran and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia has backed Hariri and his father, the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, though the kingdom also orchestrated Hariri's resignation.

Hezbollah has not made any comments about the political situation since Hariri's reversal.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh told the conference Lebanon's economy is on track to grow 2.5 percent this year. He said inflation was floating between 3 and 3.5 percent.

Lebanon prides itself on being one of the region's top destinations for finance.

The prime minister also met with the French ambassador on Thursday. Diplomatic efforts led by French President Emmanuel Macron proved instrumental to returning Hariri to Beirut after his resignation from the Saudi capital.

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