September 20, 2017

Lebanese President Michel Aoun begins Middle East tour in Saudi Arabia

Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia is his first visit abroad since his election last October. Aoun’s visit came after an invitation from the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

Aoun would like his visit to ease tensions that resulted from Lebanon’s policy of dissociation and the increasing influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah on Lebanon’s positions. Lebanon dissociated itself from Arab League resolutions that condemned attacks on the Saudi Arabian embassy and consulate in Tehran, Iran in 2015 as well as Hezbollah’s terrorist activities in Syria.
The Lebanese side hopes Saudi Arabia will lift the travel advisories that restrict travel to Lebanon and rethink the cancellation of a USD three-billion aid package for the Lebanese Army.
Last March, Saudi Arabia classified Hezbollah a terrorist organization and called on Saudi Arabian nationals to leave Lebanon which relies heavily on tourism.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud received at Al-Yamamah palace Tuesday President Michel Aoun of the Republic of Lebanon. Upon arrival at the venue, he was also received by Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, Governor of Riyadh region.
The Saudi government suspended nearly $4bn in arms support to Lebanon last year, as well as issuing a travel advisory to its citizens against going to Lebanon.

One of Lebanon’s most important financial sectors, tourism generated less than $4bn for the country last year, compared to $8.4bn in 2010 – with visitors from neighboring Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, having dropped significantly.

The Saudi government took the measures against Lebanon because it said the country had failed to condemn what it considered to be attacks on its diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016.

The protests in Tehran at the Saudi embassy followed the execution of 47 people, including the Shia Muslim leader, Nimr al-Nimr, in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia subsequently cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, and cooled relations with Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim political and social movement that is politically allied with Iran, enjoys significant influence.

Despite that, Hezbollah – with which Aoun is allied – has welcomed the president’s trip to Riyadh.

“Hezbollah has said that President Aoun should go to Saudi Arabia,” Louis Hobeika, a political analyst, said.

“They understand perfectly – after all, Hezbollah people are Lebanese – and they know that if the Lebanese economy functions well, Hezbollah and the population of Hezbollah will benefit too … And in my view they are interested in that visit.”

Aoun was elected president in October 2016 after the country’s top official political post was left vacant for more than two years.

The country was without a head of state for 29 months due to political infighting that prevented a quorum from forming in parliament.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri praised Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia, saying it would bring “the return of Saudi tourists and investments to Lebanon and all that contributes to the (country’s) economic advancement.”

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 President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The SPA said King Salman and Aoun discussed bilateral relations, without elaborating.

Aoun, however, told Al-Ekhbariyah TV that besides discussing the arms deal, there would be a “general assessment of the situation,” blaming the strained relations on “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.

The Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions over the past five years, with clashes and bombings that have killed scores of people. Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million Syrian refugees, equivalent to one fourth of its own population.

Following his trip to Saudi Arabia, Aoun is also expected to visit Qatar.