BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon is used to affronts to its sovereignty. Israel occupied part of the country for years. Syrian troops stayed even longer. Then the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah fought a war with Israel, and waged another in Syria, as the Lebanese government watched. The United States, France and Britain have, over the past century, done their share of meddling.
But no one has seen anything quite like the spectacle that has played out over the past few days. Saad Hariri, the prime minister, who had previously shown no signs of planning to quit, unexpectedly flew to Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation from there, to the shock of his own close advisers. He has not been back since, and no one is sure when, or if, he is returning.
Hours after Mr. Hariri’s announcement — televised Saturday on a Saudi-controlled channel — Saudi Arabia’s assertive new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, presided over the roundup of some 500 people, including 11 princes, on corruption charges.
Lebanon broke out the popcorn.
In a country where political analysis is a near-universal hobby, and where political power is — to oversimplify a bit — divided between Mr. Hariri’s Sunni, Saudi-backed party and the Shiite, Iran-backed Hezbollah, speculation was immediate that Mr. Hariri was also being held against his will. He holds dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenship and has extensive business dealings in the Persian Gulf kingdom.
A front-page headline in Al Akhbar, a newspaper that leans toward Hezbollah, called the Saudi-backed Mr. Hariri a “hostage.”
— Sarah Dadouch (@SarahDadouch) November 6, 2017
Even his advisers and allies were unwilling to declare unequivocally that he was free to return on his own schedule.
Mr. Hariri, perhaps seeking to retake control of the narrative, posted photos on Twitter of his meetings with Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to Lebanon and later with the king. But Lebanese social media commenters — and the Lebanese-British satirist Karl Sharro — were quick to poke fun, comparing the images to hostage proof-of-life photos.
— Nour Samaha (@Nour_Samaha) November 6, 2017
The only thing missing from this is Hariri holding up a newspaper and pointing to the date https://t.co/PBp4kvYvyG
— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) November 5, 2017
On Tuesday morning, word came that Mr. Hariri was on his way to the United Arab Emirates to meet the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Some saw the trip as proof he was moving under his own steam; others suggested he was just being shipped from place to place by the Saudis.
In the early afternoon, Future TV, the organ of Mr. Hariri’s party, reported that he would move on from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain, and a political ally, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, declared that Mr. Hariri would soon be back in Beirut.
But less than an hour later, news came that he was not going to Bahrain or to Beirut, but back to Riyadh.
The official news release from Mr. Hariri’s office shed little light. It said that he had met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and that “they discussed the brotherly relations and developments in Lebanon.”
Nohad Machnouk, the interior minister from Mr. Hariri’s party and considered a close ally, said the prime minister had his own reasons, independent of Saudi Arabia, to be frustrated with his position in a unity government with Hezbollah.
But he admitted he had not spoken to Mr. Hariri since the prime minister went to Saudi Arabia, and acknowledged the uncertainty facing Lebanon. He said it appeared as if Saudi Arabia had dictated, at least, the timing of the resignation.
Michael Young, a longtime Hezbollah opponent who edits Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that while he did not believe that Mr. Hariri was a literal hostage, his odd sojourn in Saudi Arabia was a newly physical manifestation of what everyone in Lebanon had long known to be true: Mr. Hariri’s power comes from the fact that “he is the Saudis’ guy.”
“His margin of maneuver against the Saudis is very limited indeed,” Mr. Young said. “He’s a de facto hostage all the time.”