Backstory: The resignation – and return – of Lebanon's Hariri

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut on Nov. 22, saying he would remain in his position as prime minister.

Saad al-Hariri who suspended his decision to resign as prime minister gestures to his supporters at his home in Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

His sudden and mysterious re-emergence ended weeks of high-stakes political drama. To tell the story, a team of Reuters journalists, including Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul, leveraged extensive regional sources in politics and government developed over many years.

When Hariri surprisingly announced his resignation in a speech on Nov. 4 from Saudi Arabia, our Middle East team of reporters could tell something was not quite right.

The speech included denunciations of Hezbollah and Iran in unusually hostile or violent terms, language that was atypical of the pragmatic Hariri, and it hewed closer to the line taken by Saudi authorities who owned the channel on which the speech was broadcast, further raising suspicions.

Hariri’s delivery and body language, with eyes repeatedly darting to a script he held in his hands, prompted the Reuters team in Beirut to promptly reach out to their network of contacts to figure out the story behind the resignation.

They found Hariri’s aides and colleagues were just as surprised as they were. Moreover, they appeared unsettled, and some were afraid to speak on the phone, prompting reporters to spend time over several days communicating with sources via messaging applications and face-to-face meetings.

Their work resulted in two exclusive stories documenting the behind-the-scenes developments in a crisis pushing Lebanon to the frontlines of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Speaking to government officials close to Hariri, Reuters journalists were able to document insider accounts, telling how Hariri’s phone had been confiscated, and how he was kept waiting for hours before being handed a copy of his resignation speech, which he was forced to read on TV.

The key to delivering stories detailing the machinations of a normally secretive world is a deep bench of well-placed sources in the region.

“Sources trust us,” said Samia Nakhoul, Middle East editor for Reuters. “We have long relationships with these officials, politicians and advisers.”

Nakhoul said the key to developing and maintaining these sources is to check in and meet with them, even when Lebanon is not front-page news and they cannot provide information relevant to current events.

These sources allowed Reuters to answer the most significant question that Hariri’s speech raised: was he voluntarily resigning?

The journalists first heard of Hariri’s situation from two sources — but decided they needed more given the sensitivity of the story. They eventually got information from a third source who confirmed the government’s belief he was being held.

The sources included two top government officials in Beirut as well a senior politician, who said he had been ordered to resign and put under house arrest — an unexpected disclosure that led to another exclusive story.

To our readers, from the Editor-in-Chief

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