In first foreign trip, Aoun seeks to mend Lebanon-Saudi ties

In February, Saudi halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon, a decision linked to the kingdom's tensions with Iran.
  • Last update: 10 January 2017 | 17:49

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Lebanon's newly elected president met on Tuesday with the Saudi king during his first visit to the kingdom, a meeting that could melt the ice between the two countries after relations became strained over divisions on Iran and its Lebanese ally, Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The kingdom's state news agency SPA said the 83-year-old Michel Aoun, who arrived on Monday along with eight ministers, was first received by Riyadh governor, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud.

On Tuesday, Aoun met with King Salman at theYamama palace in Riyadh where he received a red-carpet reception, SPA said. 

A former general, Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country's top post due to deep divisions between Lebanon's political factions. Aoun, a key ally of Hezbollah, was officially endorsed for the presidency by Saudi Arabia's top ally, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, in a move that numerous analysts said reflected the kingdom's tacit approval of the former general's election. In exchange, Aoun's parliamentary bloc nominated Hariri for the premiership post. Weeks later, Hariri formed a national unity government that includes Hezbollah representatives.

Hariri is a longtime critic of Hezbollah's support for the Syrian government in that country's ongoing civil war. The militant group has sent thousands of its members to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces against rebel factions, including groups that enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia who had called for the ouster of Assad.

Last February, Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon, a decision linked to the kingdom's tensions with Iran. The deal, aimed at equipping and supporting the Lebanese military, is part of the talks agenda, according to Aoun, who gave an interview with the Saudi state-run Al-Ekhbariyah TV.

The kingdom reached the decision to suspend military aid after conducting a comprehensive review of its relations with Lebanon, leading to the conclusion that "Hezbollah is in control of Lebanon's political will," the SPA quoted an official source as saying back then. The kingdom has also classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and advised its citizens against traveling to Lebanon.

Salman and Aoun discussed bilateral relations, SPA said but didn't elaborate.

Aoun, however, told Al-Ekhbariyah TV that besides discussing the arms deal, there will be a "general assessment of the situation, no doubt." He blamed the strained Saudi-Lebanese relations on the "events in the Arab countries."

"I am here today to remove such ambiguities while carrying with me love and friendship to the Saudi people," he said.

Aoun also emphasized that his country doesn't fear political turmoil as the latest arrangements gave the country "immunity."

The Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions over the past five years, with clashes and bombings that have killed scores. He added that the increase in Syrian refugees in Lebanon adds a burden on the small Mediterranean country. Lebanon is home to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, or a third of the country's population.

Saudi daily newspaper Okaz wrote on Monday that Aoun's visit was an attempt to heal "previous breaches" between the two countries and end attempts by "foreign powers, which aim at taking control over Lebanon's fate" — a thinly-veiled reference to Iran, the top regional rival to Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

Aoun today heads the second-largest bloc in parliament and is considered by many as the country's strongest Christian leader. Despite his strong ties to Hezbollah, Aoun has also managed to forge an alliance with the Lebanese Forces, a major Christian party that enjoys strong ties to Hariri and Saudi Arabia.

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