Hariri returns to Saudi Arabia, meets with King Salman
LONDON - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri travelled to Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, his first trip to the kingdom since his shock resignation announcement, which was later recanted, from there last November.
Hariri also met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman.
Official statements in Saudi and Lebanese media said bilateral relations and recent political developments in Lebanon were discussed during the meetings, which were described as “excellent” by sources in attendance.
The new round of Riyadh talks comes at a crucial time for both states.
For Hariri, the meeting is seen as a sign of support from Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim country and a major regional powerhouse, as Lebanon gears up for parliamentary elections on May 6, in which Hariri’s Sunni bloc will compete for seats and political influence.
The Lebanese also hope to mobilise Saudi support for a donor conference April 6 in Paris. The conference aims to raise $16 billion in investments for the ailing Lebanese economy. Saudi Arabia, which supported Lebanon after its 15-year civil war, has scaled down its contributions in recent years.
“The visit is a step by Saudi Arabia in a positive direction,” Mohammad Qabbani, a Lebanese lawmaker with Hariri’s Future Movement told the Wall Street Journal.
“It has the potential — and we hope it does — to return to the historically intimate relationship between the two countries.”
Ahead of Hariri’s visit, a Saudi delegation to Beirut, led by adviser to the royal court Nizar al-Aloula and accompanied by Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Yaacoub, met with high-ranking Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.
Aloula delivered a message to Aoun in support of Lebanon’s sovereignty from King Salman.
Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Hariri was extended during a meeting between him and Aloula, which the Lebanese prime minister described as “excellent.”
Hariri announced he was resigning last November in a speech from Riyadh, leading to speculation in Lebanese media and political circles.
Pro-Hezbollah media claimed Hariri was being held in Riyadh against his will as part of the Saudi anti-corruption campaign. That theory was refuted when Hariri travelled to the United Arab Emirates and France before returning to Lebanon. He withdrew his resignation in early December.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed told the Washington Post he had been unfairly criticised over Hariri’s resignation. Crown Prince Mohammed said Hariri is now “in a better position” in Lebanon regarding Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Relations between Riyadh and Beirut soured in 2016 after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah political ally, refused to vote on a joint Arab statement condemning an attack on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran.
Some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members banned their citizens from travelling to Lebanon and reduced their diplomatic presence in Beirut. All six GCC members designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and Riyadh suspended a $3 billion aid package intended for the Lebanese military.
Relations improved after a deal was brokered in which Aoun, who is aligned with Hezbollah, became president of Lebanon in October 2016 under the condition that Hariri would return as prime minister.
Saudi Arabia appointed an ambassador to Lebanon in February 2017.
Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Bloomberg News that “it is in Lebanon’s interest to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia for the sake of its economy given that it’s the major source of remittances.”
“Saudi Arabia cannot leave the scene empty for Iran to fill the gap and needs to counterbalance Iran’s increasing clout,” he said.
Walid al-Bukhari, charge d’affaires at the Saudi Embassy in Lebanon, who was part of the delegation that invited Hariri to Riyadh and attended the meeting with Saudi King Salman, wrote on his official Twitter account: “#Lebanon… No matter how long we stay apart, we will be together again.”