BEIRUT — A week after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation, what seemed at first like a bizarre domestic political dispute is escalating tensions in the Middle East and threatening to become a flashpoint in the struggle for power there.
On Friday, Hariri remained stranded in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah said the Saudis were holding him against his will, while the Saudis have said there was a plot to assassinate him.
Fractious Lebanese politics and interference in them by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a host of other powers are nothing new, but the Hariri case has become part of a high-stakes buildup of tension that is fueling anxiety about whether the region is on the verge of war.
The United States on Friday urged calm, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning “against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,” a message apparently aimed at Hezbollah as well as Saudi Arabia.
As events in the region have unfolded over the past week, each more surprising and bewildering than the last, world leaders, analysts, and diplomats have scrambled to figure out what is behind them and whether they are all connected.
Some analysts fear they are part of a broader plot to spark a war between Israel and Hezbollah that would risk a wider conflagration.
President Michel Aoun of Lebanon told the Saudi chargé d’affaires in Beirut, Walid Bukhari, that the manner of Hariri’s resignation was “unacceptable,” and a consortium of countries and organizations interested in Lebanon’s stability said they had met Friday with Aoun, who called for Hariri’s return.
Hariri said he was quitting because of what he said was Iran’s disproportionate influence in Lebanon through its ally, Hezbollah, which is part of the unity government he headed.
A week ago, Hariri unexpectedly flew to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, without any of his close advisers. A day later, he announced his resignation on Saudi television.
On Saturday, a missile fired from Yemen came close to Riyadh before being shot down. Saudi Arabia blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the missile, suggesting that they had aided the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire it.
Before the world had a chance to absorb this news, the ambitious and aggressive Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the arrest of hundreds of Saudis, including members of the royal family, in what is either a crackdown on corruption, as Saudi officials put it, or a political purge, as outside analysts have suggested.
Even before these events unfolded, analysts and officials around the region had been anxious about the youthful Saudi leader escalating threats to roll back Iranian influence, the Trump administration signaling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and increasingly pointed warnings from Israel that it may eventually fight another war with Hezbollah.
Some Israeli officials have said Hezbollah has grown too powerful and it is time to strike a decisive blow against it. On Friday, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared in a televised speech that Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Lebanon, after essentially kidnapping Hariri.