In just two weeks, the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has upended both the domestic and the regional balance of power with a series of moves that have left observers struggling to keep up.

And as unprecedented as Lebanon's Saad Hariri's first televised appearance from Riyadh was - the prime minister of one country announcing his resignation from the capital of another, on a Saudi news channel - his second appearance in the news was somehow more compelling.

It was in a 90-minute interview on Lebanon's Future TV, a channel Hariri happens to own. The interviewer was the only one of the channel's employees allowed into Saudi Arabia - with the crew and the equipment provided by the host country.

During the interview, Hariri seemed leery of a man lingering in the background.

"He [Hariri] appeared to be a broken man, a man stripped of his dignity," explains Rania Masri, an academic and writer. "A man who was truly pathetic, truly arousing pity. Not at all a symbol of a government of a sovereign country, but rather the symbol of a man who has been threatened. He was nervous, he was agitated, he was drawn to tears."

Lebanon is a politically complex, factionalised country and the country's media landscape reflects that. But what makes this story even more complicated is the Iran angle.

Saudi Arabia's regional power struggle with Iran is playing out in the devastating war on Yemen as well as in Lebanon, where the Saudis want to curtail the influence of Hezbollah, the political party and armed group backed by Iran.

The same day Hariri hosted an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader last week - a meeting the Iranians described as positive and constructive - the Lebanese prime minister found himself on a plane to Riyadh.

"This was kind of like the peak of this media spectacle within this entire drama," says Habib Battah, editor, BeirutReport.com. "The only evidence that we have of our prime minister not being captive is the interview with a journalist who he employs on a TV station that he owns."

Hariri landed in Riyadh just as the Saudi government launched what it called an anti-corruption drive.

Hundreds were arrested, including more than a dozen royals and ministers of the state. Among those reportedly being held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, majority owner of the Rotana media company and a business partner of Rupert Murdoch's through 21st Century Fox and News Corporation, as well as Waleed Al Ibrahim, who owns MBC and Al Arabiya, a pan-Arab news channel based in Dubai.

The two Saudi media tycoons, who control a wide network of Middle Eastern television channels, radio stations, music labels and digital entertainment assets from Morocco to Oman, were reportedly arrested for resisting the crown prince's repeated attempts over the past year to buy their companies.

"That was one of the reasons that they tried the blockade against Qatar," according to David Hearst, editor for the Middle East Eye. "It was because of Al Jazeera's prominence in the media. They're very media minded, and they think, in a very old fashioned way, that the media can be bought. That's the classic Arab state way of thinking about the media. They don't think that the Arab world - and they've said so - is ready for free speech and they want to control it."

Masri says, "I can see no other reason for their arrest other than a consolidation of power. We are talking about the wealth of billions of dollars held captive at the Ritz Carlton in Saudi Arabia. And the consolidation of financial power goes hand in hand with the consolidation of media power. Now, if it were really for corruption charges, why have they been arrested and placed in a hotel rather than arrested and had an open trial with clear evidence presented as to the alleged corruption charges?"

By this past Thursday, the Financial Times was reporting that the hotel detainees could buy their freedom by surrendering up to 70 percent of their accumulated wealth - which makes the Saudi corruption crackdown look like a shakedown.

Contributors:
Rania Masri, academic and writer
Habib Battah, editor, BeirutReport.com and Journalism Lecturer at the American University of Beirut
As'ad Abukhalil, professor, California State University, Stanislaus
David Hearst, editor, Middle East Eye

Source: Al Jazeera