The Lebanese prime minister’s political party has called for his return from Saudi Arabia after his dramatic resignation, fuelling speculation the kingdom is holding him against his will.
Saad Hariri shocked his country on Saturday when he announced in a televised statement out of Saudi Arabia that he was stepping down. He has not been seen in Lebanon since.
Mr Hariri’s Future Movement party issued a statement on Thursday evening saying it was “necessary” for the politician to return “to restore Lebanon’s dignity and respect.”
The small state of Lebanon is used to affronts to its sovereignty, often becoming a battleground for proxy conflicts in the region, but it has not seen anything like the spectacle that has played out in the last few days.
Mr Hariri, whose Sunni Future Movement bloc is backed by Saudi Arabia, declared he was stepping down in protest at the growing influence of the Shia Hizbollah party.
Saudi then announced it considered the participation of Hizbollah, which is backed by major foe Iran, in the government an “act of war” against the kingdom.
Critics say Saudi is seeking to cause chaos in Lebanon in an attempt to divide its parties in the hope they turn against an ascendant Hizbollah, whose arsenal now rivals that of the army.
A front-page headline in al-Akhbar, a newspaper that leans toward Hizbollah, called the Mr Hariri a “hostage” earlier this week.
Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s President, has said he will not consider the premier’s resignation until the two meet in person.
Saudi officials have denied Hariri is under house arrest, releasing pictures of him having meetings in Riyadh with Saudi’s King Salman and on Tuesday with officials in the UAE.
The 47-year-old’s private plane was reported to have landed in Beirut on Thursday morning without him.
The kingdom then upped the stakes, ordered all its citizens in Lebanon to return home immediately.
Saudi Arabia’s aggressive posturing appears to be closely linked to an effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to eliminate challengers and consolidate power.
The country’s sweeping anti-graft purge widened to more than 200 people.
Authorities say the individuals were being questioned in relation to $100 billion they believed to have been lost through corruption and embezzlement over several decades.
“The potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large,” the attorney general said, adding that based on investigations over the past three years, at tens of billion have been misused through corruption.
The crown prince is leading the probe as the head of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee.