BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun visited on Wednesday Qatar, the second stop in the Lebanese leader's first foreign trip since taking office in October. Aoun kicked off his regional tour in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to mend ties between Lebanon and Arab Gulf countries after relations became strained over divisions on Iran and its Lebanese ally, Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Aoun held talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha, a day after meeting with King Salman at the Yamama palace in Riyadh. The Emir hailed Aoun's election as the "best choice," saying the former general will lead Lebanon into safety.
A key ally of Hezbollah, Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country's top post due to deep divisions between Lebanon's Saudi and Iranian-backed rival political factions.
Saudi Arabia's top ally in Lebanon, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, broke the deadlock after officially endorsing Aoun for the presidency--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.
In remarks to the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat published Wednesday, Aoun said his country's ties to Iran are not impeding normal relations with the Arab world, adding that Tehran support for Hezbollah might be indefinite.
"We have normal relations with Iran ... such shouldn't be a barrier in the face of normal relations with the Arab world," he said. He added Iran's support to Hezbollah "could continue indefinitely."
In February, Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon after what the Saudis described as Beirut's failure to condemn attacks on Saudi missions in Iran by demonstrators angered by the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. The kingdom said its decision came after conducting a comprehensive review of its relations with Lebanon, leading to the conclusion that "Hezbollah is in control of Lebanon's political will." Weeks later, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and advised its citizens against traveling to Beirut.
Aoun said he discussed the arms deal with Saudi officials, without elaborating. The former general also said that "the decision about the return of the tourists has been taken."
Saudi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the Saudi king has promised to review the restoration of the aid package to the Lebanese army but without giving a timetable.
They also said that the king has assured Aoun that he will give instructions to the powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to "give attention to the issue."
A senior Lebanese official told the Associated Press that Saudis have conditions to unblock the military aid to Lebanon, including assurances that such assistance won't end up in the hands any Lebanese parties — a reference to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah 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 which had called for the ouster of Assad.--with AP.
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