Lebanese security forces worked quickly to rescue Mashari al-Mutairi, the Saudi national who was abducted in Beirut on Sunday evening.
The kidnapping incident came as Lebanon works to mend its relations with Saudi Arabia, and amid a regional détente following the normalization agreement between Tehran and Riyadh.
The abduction, which allegedly involved a demand for a $400,000 ransom, had the potential to sabotage these reconciliation efforts. Initial reports, although unverified, pointed toward Hezbollah involvement.
However, Lebanon’s army soon rescued the man — and averted a diplomatic crisis. The Saudi ambassador in Beirut, Walid Bukhari, along with key political figures, commended Lebanese Army chief General Joseph Aoun and praised his role in the operation.
All this comes as Gen. Aoun continues to be regarded as a strong contender for the presidency.
A Hezbollah role?
The kidnapping came to public attention when caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi tweeted about it on Monday, triggering a media and political uproar.
Recent weeks have seen relative regional calm, notably following the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which was sealed in Beijing.
At the recent Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) emphasized this positive momentum, highlighting the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold.
During the summit, caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed to Arab nations for support, given Lebanon’s unprecedented economic, social and political crisis.
He specifically encouraged foreign and Arab tourists to spend their summer vacations in Lebanon, as the country has faced a decline in tourism from Gulf nations due to strained diplomatic relations caused by Hezbollah’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Mutairi's kidnapping had the potential to undermine these plans, particularly as initial suspicions pointed toward Hezbollah, and some media reports suggested that the victim was abducted in Beiru’s southern suburbs, known as as the party stronghold.
“Any attempt to harm Lebanon”s relations with Saudi Arabia is a crime,” Mawlawi said following a meeting with Walid Bukhari.
However, the minister expressed relief that the situation no longer posed a risk.
“The army intelligence succeeded in freeing [Mutairi] after an operation on the Lebanese-Syrian border,” the army said 48 hours later.
A security source told L’Orient-Le Jour that the victim was kidnapped on Sunday night on his way home from a restaurant in Beirut’s seafront area.
“The army intelligence has successfully identified the kidnappers, who have previous experience in such operations,” the source said on condition of anonymity, adding that the suspects are part of a larger network involved in drug smuggling between Lebanon and Syria, a concern that Saudi Arabia has been actively addressing.
“We managed to apprehend some of the individuals involved in the kidnapping before they could escape to Syria, which is their usual escape route and makes them difficult to apprehend,” the source added.
The exact motives behind the kidnapping remain uncertain. It remains difficult to determine whether it is a message from drug traffickers to Riyadh, an attempt by the Syrian regime to damage relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia or a means of pressuring the Saudi authorities during ongoing indirect negotiations between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia regarding Lebanese detainees in the Gulf. Or, could it simply have been the work of criminals looking for quick money?
The security source said there was no concrete evidence linking the kidnappers to a specific political party — a sentiment shared by Achraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces and a staunch Hezbollah critic.
“We must await the investigation results, but I must say that what has occurred is perilous for Lebanon, especially within this context,” Rifi said.
Hezbollah denies any involvement in the incident.
“Politics has no relation to this narrative,” Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to the party, said.
Regardless of whether the kidnappers are affiliated with a political party, the timing of the incident extends beyond mere security concerns. Undoubtedly, it has further bolstered Joseph Aoun’s position.
Following the border clashes between Lebanon and Israel in early April, where the army demonstrated its role as a stabilizing force, this kidnapping serves as another successful trial for the army general.
“The army’s efforts were remarkable and resulted in the swift release of the hostage within 48 hours,” Bukhari said after meeting with the army chief in Yarze on Monday.
Bukhari also thanked the caretaker interior minister and the army chief for their roles in the rescue.
Shortly after the news of Mutairi's release, Mikati also applauded the army’s operation.
Perceived as a “compromise” figure by default, Joseph Aoun has emerged as one of the leading contenders for the presidency, more than seven months after the position became vacant.
Adding to his prospects, various Arab and foreign capitals, including Doha, support his candidacy.
However, Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) opposes this scenario, while the Amal-Hezbollah alliance stands by its candidate, Zgharta strongman Sleiman Frangieh.
Consequently, Joseph Aoun’s candidacy has been somewhat overshadowed by other contenders, notably former Finance Minister Jihad Azour, who is favored by the anti-Frangieh camp.
However, Aoun’s involvement in the case of the kidnapped Saudi citizen could potentially alter the political landscape. His demonstrated ability to maintain stability in Lebanon and combat drug trafficking, particularly the trade of Captagon, sets him apart.
Even Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who implicitly opposes his candidacy, citing constitutional difficulties, has applauded his actions.
Aoun’s name will likely remain a formidable contender in the race for the presidency in Baabda.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.