Several “cloak and dagger” actions take place in the world of diplomacy, espionage and international relations. Even kidnappings and terrorism across borders are a part of “covert operations”. But, what has been termed as a unique “kidnapping” took place after Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s aircraft landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 3. Observers noted there was nobody at the airport to receive Hariri, who holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship. After disappearing for a brief period, Hariri appeared in a television interview in Riyadh, announcing he had resigned as PM on November 4. He significantly noted that while he would soon return to Lebanon, his wife and children would stay back in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia appears to have handled subsequent developments, without carefully thinking through issues. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being held responsible for what transpired. The Crown Prince is the driving force behind the disastrous Saudi military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. This conflict has increasingly attained Shia-Sunni dimensions, with the Saudis backing a section of the Sunnis, in a bloody civil war against former President Abdullah Saleh and the Shia Houthis, backed by Iran. The Iranians have been assisted by their Shia allies in Lebanon, the Hezbollah, who are not only successfully fighting Saudi-backed forces in Syria, but are the only force in the Arab world, who can challenge the Israelis.
Hariri played a crucial role in restoring peace in Lebanon, by making common cause with the country’s Christian President, Michel Aoun. It was the joint efforts of Aoun and Hariri that led to the Shia Hezbollah supporting the government in Lebanon and restoring peace in the war-torn country. Prince Salman resented this development, as it cemented a formidable Shia grouping comprising Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, across the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean. This grouping has also caused concern in Israel and further strengthened the Saudi-Israeli nexus. Matters came to a head, when the Houthi-Hezbollah alliance targeted Riyadh with a missile, which was shot down. Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and forced to declare his resignation as PM, in a bid to isolate Iran and the Hezbollah.
“Nothing justifies that Saad al Hariri has not returned to Lebanon in 12 days. We consider that he has been detained,” an outraged Aoun told reporters on November 15. Hariri had said his wife and children would remain in Saudi Arabia, a statement further fuelling fears that he was under Saudi duress. All this was occurring even as Israel was massing forces on its borders with Lebanon, pointing to yet another conflict in the region. Israel appeared attempting to be trying once again, to dislodge the Hezbollah from fortified areas. Though Hariri was released on November 19 via France, Saudi actions have antagonised their Sunni compatriots in Lebanon.
India has to keep a close watch on these developments, as they will have a significant bearing on the welfare of millions of Indian nationals living in the region. Moreover, following the visit of Saudi King Salman to Moscow, Russia appears to have joined OPEC in curtailing oil production, resulting in a significant rise in oil prices. Any conflict in the region will result in further rise in oil prices, putting increased strains on our economy. Saudi Arabia would also have to ponder over whether its intervention in Yemen and its tensions with neighbouring Qatar are in the best interests of regional peace. Finally, the Trump administration would be well advised to seek regional peace and cooperation, rather than fomenting differences and rivalries.