Scarcity doesn’t really justify the upward price movement. There isn’t a shortage of oil in the world. But there could be, in the worst case, if missiles start flying between two of the world’s largest oil players: Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Maybe it won’t happen. But maybe it will. And that’s what the “geopolitical risk premium” is all about. It’s an anxiety surcharge that’s tacked onto every barrel of oil, in fear of supply disruption on a moment’s notice. And the fear is back.
After three years of naivety we’re back to acknowledging the known unknowns of the Middle East, the uncertainties that strap a 10-to-20 percent premium on the price of a barrel.
Paying a risk premium for oil is nothing new. It’s been around for decades and has gone up and down with the hostility thermometer of the Middle East.
Unusually, the pricing of risk dropped to zero around 2015. Three main reasons prompted a sense of world peace: the promise of the Iranian nuclear deal; a feeling that booming oilfields in Texas could offset any disruption; and a growing surplus of oil inventories in storage tanks around the world.
Of late, the notion of oil obsolescence has also perpetuated a feeling of nonchalance. “Who cares about the Middle East and their oil?” has been a question driven by the utopian narrative: “I’m not worried, everyone will be driving electric cars in a few years anyway.”
But it’s all been a false sense of security.
Electric cars are still rare. Oil remains vital to the world economy. Its geographic concentration is such that a large proportion of the world’s needs is produced from underneath layers of geopolitics, religious antagonism, authoritarianism, civil strife and corruption.
When I reflect on the extremes of oily politics, I pull out my old copy of Life Magazine from 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo. Back then, in a rare moment of unity, Arabs came together to curtail oil shipments to the west, demanding that Israel cede lands it captured in the 1967 war.
I’m struck by the two-page spread showing a Dutch freeway that’s completely empty, not a car on the road due to widespread gasoline and diesel shortages. The disruption was less than three percent of world supply and lasted only a few months, but it was enough to momentarily paralyze transportation in affected countries—and change attitudes about energy security too. The fallout led to big changes in personal mobility—smaller cars, greater fuel economy and alternate modes of transport like high-speed rail—especially in Europe and Japan.
Juxtaposed on the fuel-starved image is a photo inset of a meeting between various leaders of the embargo. The snapshot is taken at a moment with lots of laughter, suggesting the not-so-subtle message that they were pleased with their destabilizing accomplishment. Maybe.
But no one is laughing now. Regional animosity is elevated, the weaponry is lethal and it’s hard to figure out allegiances and regional political ambitions. And the scale of consequence is bigger too: In 1973 oil consumption was almost 56 million barrels a day. Today it’s pushing 100 million bpd, with a quarter flowing through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow, strategic chokepoint between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The geopolitical premium is likely to increase over the next year. Oil markets are slowly heading back towards what OPEC calls “balance” and global inventories are gradually draining. The calculus is pretty simple: Progressively thinner margins for error, plus greater risk of disruption, equals more volatile prices to the upside.
If oil supply is pinched again, for whatever machination or military operation, the price of a barrel could easily double (prices quadrupled as a result of the 1973 embargo). And 20 years from now we may look back at a magazine spread of a freeway, this time showing a handful of cars—only the electric variety.
Higher oil prices are generally welcomed by petroleum producers and their upstream stakeholders. Yet amplified volatility and the potential of another oil crisis is a greater friend to purveyors of electric vehicles; they are the natural beneficiaries to their rival’s instability.
In early November, Lebanese PM Saad Hariri shocked the world by unexpectedly flying to Saudi Arabia and announcing his retirement. The Lebanese people suspected foul play on the part of Riyadh. Now they may finally have a chance to hear the full story.
In the latest twist in this incredible tale, Saad Hariri is expected to leave Saudi Arabia for France in several days before traveling to Beirut where he will reportedly formally resign as prime minister. To say Hariri’s return will be a momentous event would be a great understatement. Naturally, speculation is rife among Lebanese citizens that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician with strong bonds to Saudi Arabia, was coerced to quit.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Thursday that he looked forward to Hariri’s return following the latter’s acceptance of the French invitation. “I await the return of PM Hariri to Beirut so we can decide on the situation of the government – if he wants to resign or rescind his resignation,” Aoun said, according to presidential sources quoted by Reuters.
Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Hariri to France after speaking to him and the Saudi Crown Prince, the Elysee Palace said on Wednesday. Macron insisted that the invitation is not an offer of political exile.
The flight of Hariri
This sensational story began on November 3 when Hariri suddenly and without apparent warning boarded a flight from Beirut to Saudi Arabia. The next day, from the capital Riyadh, he announced his resignation, pointing to the “regional interference” of Iran and Hezbollah as the reason for his decision. He also said he feared assassination, which is certainly reasonable given that his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a massive truck bombing in 2005.
Analysts are of the opinion that Riyadh had grown exasperated with Hariri’s power-sharing arrangement with Hezbollah. And with Iran and Hezbollah’s success in helping to defeat Islamic State terrorists in Syria, tossing President Bashar Assad a veritable lifeline, this was seen as the last straw.
Hariri’s flight to Saudi Arabia and subsequent resignation, however, was just one earthquake among many to rock the kingdom at about the same time.
On the evening of Hariri’s announcement, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) initiated an extraordinary anti-corruption raid, which led to the arrest of 11 princes, four ministers and many businessmen. The Riyadh Ritz Carlton has been converted into a luxury jailhouse to hold the detainees. In addition to tightly consolidating King Salman’s son’s grip on power, the move could potentially add $800 billion to Saudi coffers. There was probably hope in Riyadh that all of the events, taken together, would spark chaos on the streets of Lebanon. However, if that is the case, that effort failed, as has been the case with so many Riyadh initiatives of late. In fact, Lebanon seems to have been energized and united by the Hariri scandal.
“In one week of Hariri being in Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese PM has achieved more in unifying the Lebanese than he could ever have hoped for in a lifetime of politics,” Beirut-based journalist Martin Jay wrote in an RT opinion piece this week.
As if the purge of Saudi Arabia’s princedom and business elite were not enough, MbS began a dangerous saber-rattling display aimed at regional countries.
Days after Hariri announced his resignation, Riyadh accused Lebanon of “declaring war on Saudi Arabia” because of purported “aggression” by the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. In reality, however, this was a poorly feigned attack on Iran, which for Riyadh is the real bugbear in this story.
Although Iran-Saudi relations have been strained for over a decade, things really took a turn for the worse in January 2016, following the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.
Then, on June 7, 2017, Iran suffered its first terrorist outrage in a decade as Islamic State militants carried out attacks against the Iranian Parliament building and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, leaving 17 civilians dead and 43 wounded. Many Iranian officials suggested that the attacks were the work of “foreign governments,” including Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is beginning to suspect that it is being outmaneuvered in its ‘near abroad’ by Tehran, which now enjoys an arc of influence extending from Iraq to Lebanon, and beyond, as well as in the tiny outposts of Yemen and Qatar. Riyadh exaggerates the danger of this “Iranian influence,” while at the same time failing to recognize its flatfooted foreign policy as a major reason for its setbacks of late.
For example, in its three-year war against Yemen, which has already killed some 10,000 civilians, a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions is underway, threatening some 7 million Yemenis with starvation. The turbulent events of Nov.4 were partially designed, it seems, to shroud the Yemen breakdown.
As Saad Hariri issued his resignation from Riyadh, and Saudi princes and officials were being rounded up and arrested, the young Crown Prince, 32, said his military had intercepted a Houthi ballistic missile, launched from Yemen towards an international airport on the outskirts of the Saudi capital. Some analysts are of the opinion no rocket was ever fired. In any case, MbS blamed Iran for supplying the Houthi rebels with missiles.
“The involvement of the Iranian regime in supplying its Houthi militias with missiles is considered a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” MbS told UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a telephone conversation. He added for good measure that the move “may be considered an act of war against the kingdom.”
At this point in our Arabian mystery, it cannot be denied that Riyadh is working closely with the United States and Israel. It did not go unnoticed, least of all by Iran, that US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had paid a visit to the Crown Prince just one month before the November tumult began.
Although the contents of that meeting have never been made public, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, fired off a tweet that got no Trump response: “Visits by Kushner & Lebanese PM led to Hariri’s bizarre resignation while abroad. Of course, Iran is accused of interference.”
Judging by the secretive Kushner meeting, Riyadh appears to be working as a proxy of sorts for the region’s real power-brokers, the United States and Israel.
“We don’t know if the Saudis are playing a game whereby they will let Hariri go back to Lebanon as a reminder… that they can go to any extreme to remove power from him,” Beirut-based Martin Jay told RT via telephone.
Now it remains to be seen if Saad Hariri and his family will remain a long-term guest of Emmanuel Macron in Paris, or if he will, as promised, continue on to the next leg of his mysterious journey back to Lebanon, where he will certainly be the center of attention from all sides.
“Battleships and oil tankers of the aggressor and its movements will not be immune from the fire of Yemeni naval forces if directed by the senior leadership,” Al Masirah news cited the country’s navy and coast guard as saying Sunday.
Earlier, Brig. Gen. Sharaf Ghalib Luqman, a military spokesman for the Houthi rebels, said that “systematic crimes of aggression” and the “closure of ports” compels the Houthi forces “to target all sources of funding” of the aggressor. He added the country is ready to “respond to the escalation of the Saudi-US aggression promptly.”
The threat of a military response to the ongoing blockade was made after Houthi leader Maj. Gen. Yousef al-Madani met leaders of the naval, coastal defense and coast guard forces Saturday. That same day, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi posted a message on Facebook assuring that “international navigation will remain safe as it was before,” making clear that “only those who attack our country” will be targeted.
The Saudi-led military coalition announced last week that it was temporarily shutting all of Yemen’s land border crossings as well as its air and sea ports in response to a ballistic missile that targeted Riyadh on November 4. The kingdom accused Houthis of firing an Iran-supplied rocket at the Saudi capital, and responded with bombing raids on the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Iran has denied allegations that it supplies weapons to the Houthis, but concedes it backs the rebels’ cause.
Following the November 6 closure of all ports of entry into Yemen, a range of UN bodies expressed concern over the fate of civilians in the country, where nearly 7 million people are starving while others depend on humanitarian assistance amidst a deadly cholera epidemic.
“The recent closure of the Yemen’s airspace, sea and land ports has worsened the already shrinking space for the lifesaving humanitarian work. It is blocking the delivery of vital humanitarian assistance to children in desperate need in Yemen. And it is making a catastrophic situation for children far worse,” Meritxell Relano, the UNICEF Representative in Yemen said Friday.
Also describing the situation in Yemen as “catastrophic,” a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) urged the Saudis to lift the blockade, as up to 90 percent of Yemen’s daily needs are served through humanitarian aid.
“That lifeline has to be kept open and it is absolutely essential that the operation of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) be allowed to continue unhindered,” Jens Laerke emphasized.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric warned that the Saudi-led blockade “has had a tremendously negative impact on a situation that is already catastrophic.”
Unless Saudi Arabia lifts the blockade, “it will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims,” Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned earlier this week.
The UN Security Council demanded that the Saudi-led coalition keep Yemen’s air and sea ports open to aid deliveries into the country following a session discussing Riyadh’s draconian measures.
The Saudi-led coalition has been waging a military campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen since March 2015. According to the latest UN figures, the three-year-old conflict has so far claimed the lives of over 5,000 civilians, in addition to nearly 9,000 people that have been injured.
As children in war-torn Yemen continue to face severe malnutrition and a deadly cholera outbreak, Saudi Arabia has agreed to reopen air and sea ports following a week-long blockade. RT has met with children affected by the dire situation.
Riyadh’s decision, announced earlier on Monday, comes four days after the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that nearly 400,000 children in Yemen are “at risk of death from severe acute malnutrition.” Children are also facing a deadly cholera outbreak, with 50 percent of the cases belonging to those under the age of 15.
The UN and over 20 aid groups warned the blockade – imposed on November 6 – could make things worse in the war-torn country. “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death,” the organizations wrote last week.
RT Arabic spoke with two young brothers who have felt the severe impact of the ongoing civil war and the blockade. Forced to quit school, the children now rummage through trash bins looking for tin cans which can bring their family a little bit of money. “We are taking care of our family…we collect cans to buy food and pay the rent, and to feed all our family,” the older brother said.
However, the blockade will now be lifted. “The first step in this process will be taken within 24 hours and involves reopening all the ports in areas controlled by [Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which the coalition backs],” the Saudi mission at the UN said on Monday, as quoted by AP.
The ports referred to by the mission are located in Aden, Mocha and Mukalla. The mission says it has asked the UN to provide a team of experts to determine ways to prevent weapons from being smuggled in.
Yet, Abdu Ilahi al-Harazi from the Special Hospitals Union said that civilians should never be deprived of necessities simply because Riyadh is worried about weapons coming into the country. “Food and medicine are not weapons, they’re things that have nothing to do with weapons. They shouldn’t be manipulated,”he said.
The chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Massoud Shadjareh, echoed that sentiment. “There is no logical reason that we couldn’t…take medicine and deal with the issue of cholera. There is no logical reason that we couldn’t…give food and support to those who are starving…the only thing that is holding us back is the fact that the Saudis and their allies, with the help and support of the United States and the West, are putting very effective…blockade which no food, no medicine gets through,” he said.
The Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by the US, launched an aerial campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in March 2015, and later began a ground operation. The coalition is allied to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia when the Houthis took power in Yemen. According to the latest UN figures, the conflict has so far led to the deaths of over 5,000 civilians. More than 8,500 people have been injured in the ongoing fighting.
Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
The Hariri ‘kidnapping’ by Riyadh is generating more fake news and is only succeeding in boosting his popularity in Lebanon. But did a Saudi prince and Trump’s son intend on making him a bedroom poster icon in their quest to vex Hezbollah?
The recent news that Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state has urged Lebanon’s prime minister to return to Lebanon is baffling, in a story which is surely heading toward Hollywood scriptwriters any day now. On the same day as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (‘MbS’) began his purge of just about anyone who could question his leadership – or bankroll a campaign to topple him once he takes the throne – Saad Hariri’s jet touched down in Riyadh, and he was swiftly surrounded by Saudi police who took all the phones off him and his entourage. In the following days, no one knows his true fate after he read a script announcing his immediate resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing implausible reasons such as attempts to assassinate him.
In one week, regional journalists, mainly aligned to Saudi Arabian interests, have had a field day speculating on what is going on. No one really knows, not even European heads of state or least of all Rex Tillerson, who is under the allusion that Hariri is in control of his own fate.
Analysts are divided into two camps over what the forced resignation is really about, which followed a knee-jerk reaction from those in Lebanon who believed it was all a theatrical ploy to get Hezbollah to agree to Hariri’s proposed cabinet of ministers. As time passed, the two camps’ theories evolved into the move being orchestrated by MbS to show Iran that it is still powerful, using the Hariri resignation as a tool to re-balance the Saudi-Iran pendulum of geopolitical spoils. The second theory is more about Saudi Arabia itself and what the new crown prince is doing there. Many believe the Hariri resignation – which came on the same day as the round up of 11 princes, four ministers, and billionaire Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar, is part of the crackdown, as Hariri himself is suspected of links to many of the businessmen targeted. Some speculate the crown prince is investigating him and is considering charging him – and therefore needs him to lose his immunity from prosecution, which he held as Lebanon’s PM. The theory, analysts tell me, is that Hariri needs to be kept on a short leash until he can be entirely cleared and also needs to prove his undying loyalty to MbS and his father.
Yet if the plan by MbS is to use Hariri to extract some token payment from Iran, the plan is already back-firing on a grand scale and like many of Riyadh’s schemes – Syria, Yemen, and Qatar – is comically ill-fated. In one week of Hariri being in Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese PM has achieved more in unifying the Lebanese than he could ever have hoped for in a lifetime of politics. Surely the Saudi’s ruse did not intend for Hariri to gain cross-party popularity in a country so sternly and insidiously divided by confessional lines? In just a week, Lebanon’s leading figures have quickly reached a consensus that they need Hariri back, a point echoed by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who is looking increasingly statesmanlike as the days pass and whose calm, measured speeches are now being watched by the entire country – thanks to Riyadh’s cunning plan.
Could it really have been the Saudi Crown prince’s plan to boost Hariri’s popularity and make the Hezbollah chief’s speeches unmissable?
Kushner, a Saudi prince and low hanging fruit
One has to wonder who or what is really behind this plan. Many pundits are troubled by how aloof Tillerson is to the reality of what’s happening. It’s as though the US really isn’t on the same page. And there’s a reason for this. It’s my belief that Trump has almost entirely outsourced the Middle East to his son-in-law who is behind this latest gambit in Lebanon. Just a few weeks before Jared Kushner was in Riyadh to spend time with MbS. The Hariri plot is part of a whole new relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are both working hand-in-hand on a new strategy to destabilize Iran. Lebanon is a cheap shot for that. Low hanging fruit. After failing in both Syria and Yemen, where else could an easy spoil be gleaned, by taking a swipe at Iran’s feared proxy Hezbollah? But the stunt comes with a very high price to pay when – not if – it fails. If the Lebanon shenanigan goes awry and it makes Hezbollah even more popular there, does that dampen the ambitions of MbS and Kushner to hit the Shiite group or merely guide them like moths veering closer to the alluring flame?
Perhaps the answer can be found with Trump. For us to understand truly what is going in the head of the Saudi prince, we should wrestle with two points. First, his rapid rise to the seat of the crown prince is entirely due to him presenting himself to both the Israelis and the Americans as a new type of Saudi leader who could recognize the state of Israel if he was made king, which explains this new partnership unraveling so quickly. Secondly, one of the reasons why Trump likes MbS much is that the Saudi prince can be so easily understood by Trump. MbS is the Trump of Saudi Arabia. Like the US president, the crown prince is insecure, obsessed with control and seems determined to be on the front pages of newspapers – regardless of the consequences. Like Trump, he also has no regard for the media and is deluded about himself and his own abilities, particularly beyond the borders of his own country.
In a country known for being an irony-free zone, it’s also interesting to observe how the obsession with hitting Iran is a vicious circle or a sword which the Saudis have slowly lowered themselves onto; Saudi Arabia’s meddling in the region has only made Iran and Hezbollah stronger in the last five years. Understandably, Riyadh now looks to Israel as a partner in settling old scores, but it all adds up to sour grapes and now apparently both Saudi Arabia and Israel have one chief and self-defining objective: to claw back self-respect and reinstall the pride lost, through defeats with Iran and its proxies.
They both now look at Hezbollah in Lebanon and see a war which could hurt the Shiite group could be a major victory to re-write the history books.
Another irony about the Hariri story is that it is due to the collapse of the Saudi economy, which hurled Hariri back into politics in Lebanon after the Saudis couldn’t pay Hariri’s construction company the $9 billion it was owed. And MbS is credited as being the “architect to Saudi Arabia’s oil policy” which reveled in the over-production of oil, leading to rock bottom prices today as it was his idea to counter US fracking companies. Another bullet. Another foot. Another spasm of delusion and denial.
Sex it up
Of course, it’s not only Saudi aligned journalists who are sexing the whole Lebanon story up beyond its true significance. US mainstream media, like the New York Times, just can’t help itself on indulging in using the word “war” in many of its misleading headlines, raising an obvious question: is there now a new dynamic which could speed up the inevitable war between Israel and Hezbollah?
The answer is probably not in the short term. While Lebanese academics like Dr Jamal Wakim stake their reputations on saying that Israel will invade Lebanon in the next 12 months, the Saudis believe an economic blockade of Lebanon would have much more effective results on destabilizing the country and causing chaos which could then weaken Hezbollah internally, thus providing the perfect moment for Israel to strike, if Hezbollah is forced to take control of Lebanon. It’s a hell of a gamble though. And already looking like it can’t work as, historically, the Lebanese have always supported Hezbollah when the country is threatened. They are not stupid and can already see that imposing a financial crisis – by trying to starve the economy of trade and remittances from outside – is an act of war in itself. But the Middle East is a region consumed by fake news and checkbook journalists and those in the West who only give the crisis a cursory look might be fooled in believing the planted narrative that “Hezbollah has declared war on Saudi Arabia,” which many newspapers dutifully and shamefully published. Hezbollah’s mere presence, let alone military strength is enough to spook the Saudis. This is clear. The smartest thing MbS and Kushner could do now is to deflate the balloon on Hariri becoming an iconic bedroom poster like Che Guevara before it’s too late and send him back to Lebanon to negotiate a deal, as surely he will achieve much more in Beirut than he can ever in Riyadh. But Tillerson also needs to intervene, rather than merely warn against the Saudis creating a proxy war in Lebanon before it’s too late, and the Saudis pull the entire region into a new war which can never be won, and Saudi Arabia and its new ally certainly can’t afford to lose. Who knows? One day we may start even believing the click bait masterpieces of the New York Times. But don’t hold your breath.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
In the first interview since his surprise resignation from an undisclosed location in Saudi Arabia last week, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has denied being held in the kingdom against his will, saying he may reverse his decision to leave his post.
“I am a free man in Saudi Arabia, and I can leave whenever I want,” he said in an interview broadcast on the Lebanese channel Future TV. “I will return to Lebanon very soon.”
Hariri, who was prime minister between 2009 and 2011 and reappointed again last year, explained that he chose to postpone his homecoming as he was “not confident about his life and the life of his family,” and said he is currently “rebuilding the security apparatus.”
Hariri, who holds dual Saudi and Lebanese citizenship, also insisted that his host, King Salman, treats him “like a son,” rejecting allegations that Saudi Arabia was stoking the regional crisis. He reiterated almost word-for-word sentences from his November 3 resignation statement, blaming Hezbollah and Iran for creating instability in this country. He added that he wrote that statement “by his own hand.”
The politician said his intention was “to cause a positive shock,” warding off Tehran’s meddling, and said he could yet rescind his resignation if Hezbollah “promised to stay neutral in regional conflicts.”
It’s unclear if Hariri’s words will be taken at face value back home in Lebanon, where media observers noted his haggard appearance, and an unfamiliar public tone that veered between the flat and the overwhelmed, such as the moment when he appeared to break down in tears.
Just before the interview aired, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returned and spoke to him personally.
“The obscurity surrounding the condition of Prime Minister Saad Hariri since his resignation a week ago means that all positions and actions declared by him or attributed to him do not reflect the truth,” Aoun said in a statement.
Earlier, Hezbollah also said that Hariri, who was previously regarded as a Saudi ally, but not one seeking an open conflict with the powerful Shia movement, was held “hostage” in the Gulf kingdom, where several of his close family members still remain.
“We condemn the blunt, bare-faced Saudi intervention in our domestic affairs,” said Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah Friday, calling for the PM to come back. “Any offence to the Lebanese Prime Minister is an offence to all Lebanese, even when he is our adversary.”
Hezbollah believes that Hariri’s detention represents a power play by Riyadh in its proxy conflict with Tehran that is currently being played out in several neighboring states.
Local media reported that the Saudis planned to replace Saad Hariri with his older brother Bahaa, in a bid to rein in the perceived Shia influence, but these suggestions have so far been rejected by the current PM’s Future movement. “We are not a herd of sheep or a piece of property to hand over from one person to the other,” said Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk earlier this week.
On Friday, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, part of his governing coalition at home, charged that the Saudis were holding him against his will, while the Saudis have said they were protecting him from an unspecified assassination plot.
The American secretary of state Rex W. Tillerson warned Friday “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, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Even before the events of the past week, analysts and officials in the region had been increasingly anxious about what they see as a volatile combination: an impulsive, youthful Saudi leader escalating threats to roll back growing Iranian influence, an equally impulsive Trump administration signaling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and increasingly pointed warnings from Israel that it may eventually fight another war with Hezbollah.
Now analysts and diplomats are scrambling to figure out what the latest developments mean, whether they are connected and whether, as some analysts fear, they are part of a buildup to a regional war.
Mr. Hariri, until he announced his resignation on Saturday, had shown no signs of planning to do so.
Hours later, on Saturday evening, a missile fired from Yemen came close to Riyadh before being shot down. Saudi Arabia later 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 11 princes, government ministers and some of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen — in what was either a crackdown on corruption, as Saudi officials put it, or a purge, as outside analysts have suggested.
It then emerged that on a visit to Riyadh the week before, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who has been sent on missions both to Israel and Saudi Arabia, had a previously undisclosed meeting with the crown prince, talking with him until the early morning hours. The White House has not announced what they discussed but officials privately said that they were meeting about the administration’s efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
On Monday, Saudi officials said they considered the missile from Yemen an act of war by Iran and Lebanon, and on Thursday the kingdom rattled Lebanon by ordering its citizens to evacuate.
No one expects Saudi Arabia, which is mired in a war in Yemen, to start another war itself. But Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006, has expressed increasing concern about Hezbollah’s growing arsenal on its northern border.
On Friday, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Lebanon, after essentially kidnapping Mr. Hariri.
“I’m not talking here about analysis, but information,” he said. “The Saudis asked Israel to attack Lebanon.”
He provided no evidence of his claim, but Western and regional analysts have also said that, given all the confusing and unexpected events and unpredictable players, they could not entirely rule out such a scenario.
Israeli officials, however, have been publicly predicting another war with Hezbollah while also vowing to do all they can to postpone it.
“There are now those in the region who would like Israel to go to war with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for International Crisis Group. “There is no interest in that here.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long considered Iran to be Israel’s foremost enemy, a potential nuclear threat as well as a strategic adversary seeking to convert postwar Syria into a staging ground for attacks against Israel or into a corridor to transfer missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So Saudi Arabia’s stepped-up efforts to oppose Iranian influence in Lebanon drew measured applause in Jerusalem. But many Israelis fear that the aggressive actions by the Saudi crown prince could drag Israel into a war that it does not want.
Daniel Shapiro, a former United States ambassador to Israel, said that Israel and Saudi Arabia were pursuing similar goals at sharply different speeds and levels of proficiency.
“I’m not sure they’re aligned tactically,” he said in an interview. Prince Mohammed, he added, “seems very impatient to actually spark the confrontation.”
There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and Mr. Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as imminent.
Moreover, Israel’s war planners predict that the next war with Hezbollah may be catastrophic, particularly if it lasts more than a few days. Hezbollah now has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles, Israel estimates, enough to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.
Many of them are long-range and accurate enough to bring down Tel Aviv high-rises, sink offshore gas platforms, knock out Ben-Gurion Airport or level landmark buildings across Israel.
Nor is Hezbollah necessarily hankering for battle with Israel, according to analysts who study the militant group closely. It is still fighting in Syria, where it has been backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is being drained by medical costs for wounded fighters and survivor benefits for the families of those killed, said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former head of the country’s National Security Council.
“Hezbollah as an organization is in a very deep economic crisis today,” Mr. Eiland said. “But at the same time, the weaker they are, the more dependent they are on Iranian assistance — so they might have to comply with Iran’s instructions.”
But there have long been fears that now that the Syrian war — in which Hezbollah played a decisive role, gaining new influence, power and weapons — is almost over, Hezbollah’s enemies might seek to cut it down to size.
Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implied Friday that its fight in Syria was nearly finished. If Saudi Arabia’s goal was to force Hezbollah to leave Syria, he said: “No problem. Our goal there has been achieved. It’s almost over anyway.”
World leaders have sought to tamp down tensions.
President Emmanuel Macron of France left Saudi Arabia on Friday after a brief, last-minute meeting with the crown prince.
During the unexpected two-hour visit on Thursday, Mr. Macron “reiterated the importance France attaches to Lebanon’s stability, security, sovereignty and integrity,” his office said. He also discussed “the situation in Lebanon following the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri,” his office said, but provided no further details.
A group of countries and organizations interested in Lebanon’s stability met Friday with the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, and issued a statement expressing “concern regarding the situation and prevailing uncertainty in Lebanon” and calling for Lebanon to be “shielded from tensions in the region.”
The members of the group, the International Support Group for Lebanon — including the United Nations, Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States, as well as the European Union and the Arab League — are not all on the same side of the issues at stake so the statement seemed to reflect broad international concern.
At a news conference in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, before the meeting, Mr. Macron said he did not share Saudi Arabia’s “very harsh opinions” of Iran.
Analysts say a new war in the region is unlikely but some have warned that the increased tensions could provoke an economic crisis or even start a war accidentally. Miscalculations have started wars before, as in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Experts caution that Israel is often only a mistake or two from being drawn into combat.
“It’s a dangerous situation now,” said Amos Harel, the military reporter for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. “It only takes one provocation, another reaction, and it can get all of a sudden completely out of control. And when you add the Saudis, who evidently want to attack Iran and are looking for action, it gets even more complicated.”
Correction: November 10, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated where President Emmanuel Macron of France met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. They met in Riyadh, not in Abu Dhabi.
Correction: November 11, 2017
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the nature of a trip to Riyadh by Jared Kushner. The trip was not previously undisclosed; the trip had been public information, but the fact that Mr. Kushner had a long meeting with the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was previously undisclosed.