Lebanese hope for new relations with Riyadh
Beirut - After turning its back to Lebanon for nearly a year, leaving the tiny country on the verge of collapse, Saudi Arabia received with open arms Hezbollah-backed Lebanese President Michel Aoun on his first official trip in office.
The January 9th-10th visit represented a Saudi policy shift. It came after mounting tensions linked to its rivalry with Iran and revived Lebanese hopes for a swift return of Saudi and other Gulf tourists and badly needed investments.
Ties between the two countries were strained after Riyadh suspended $4 billion in military aid to Lebanon last February. It also advised Saudi citizens to stay away from Lebanon, dealing a big blow to the country’s tourism sector. The Saudis were angry about pro-Iran Hezbollah’s heated rhetoric against the Muslim Sunni monarchy and Lebanon’s failure to abide by the Arab consensus and condemn attacks by Iranian demonstrators on Saudi missions in Iran.
The fact that Aoun opted for visiting Saudi Arabia first was dictated by the need to rectify relations with Riyadh and enlist its help to revitalise the country’s ailing economy.
Aoun returned to Beirut satisfied with the outcome of his talks in Riyadh, where he met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and a short visit to Qatar. Aoun confirmed that normal relations with the Gulf countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, were restored, “regardless of any differences that may arise or that may have arisen in the past in relation to the Syrian file”.
He said “the direct and indirect results (of his tour) will soon appear”, announcing “an increased return of the Gulf citizens to Lebanon as was the case in the past”.
The Saudis, however, maintained their cautious approach towards Lebanon.
King Salman expressed “great trust” in the new Lebanese president, saying he would “steer Lebanon to the shores of safety and stability”. The Saudi ruler instructed his cabinet to review with their Lebanese counterparts economic, security, military and tourism cooperation.
A Saudi official source in Riyadh explained that “nothing official has been decided” concerning the suspended Saudi military aid to Lebanon but “it has been agreed to discuss the issue at a later stage between Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman [bin Abdulaziz], who was out of town at the time of Aoun’s visit, and his Lebanese counterpart and top army commanders”.
That, the source said, would depend on how relations between the two countries develop, taking into consideration “bilateral and regional issues and the importance to guarantee that the weapons are not being leaked to any non-official party”. This was a clear reference to Hezbollah, which Riyadh last year classified as terrorist organisation.
The meeting, the source added, is likely to take place in April due “to important Saudi engagements” before then — a sign of the Saudis’ watchful approach.
Saudi and Lebanese leaders also agreed to boost “political coordination over certain issues, increase security cooperation for fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, appoint a new Saudi ambassador to Lebanon soon, secure the return of the Saudi tourists and the Saudi airlines in line with Lebanese security guarantees for their safety and increasing investment opportunities as well as Lebanese exports to the kingdom”.
Ignoring Hezbollah’s harsh media campaign against Saudi Arabia, which is aware that the militant group takes its orders from Iran and not the Lebanese state, Saudi officials expressed understanding of Lebanon’s peculiar position, especially regarding Syria’s raging war. However, they cautioned Lebanese officials against “adopting political stances in support of outside parties that would reflect negatively on its Arab relations”, the source said.
Saudi Arabia, which had adopted a neutral stance until its main Sunni ally in Lebanon Saad Hariri returned to power as prime minister in November shortly after he endorsed Aoun for the presidency, realised the importance of re-engaging with Lebanon.
It was clear that the Saudi policy towards Lebanon was an “attempt to drag Aoun to the middle and push him away from Hezbollah and its patron Iran, and so to corner it”, said Amine Kammourieh, a Lebanese political analyst.
“The Saudis are betting on starting to dismantle the alliances that Iran has knitted with non-Shia forces in the region,” he said. “They realised that their previous policy of letting Iran sneak into the region freely was wrong, adding to that the latest developments in Syria, which were not in their favour, starting with Turkey’s new deviation.”
The Saudi kingdom, which Kammourieh said was the “wiser state in the region”, is not ready to engage in dialogue with Iran or recognise its growing influence.