Saudi-Lebanese relations suffer setback
London - Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has cancelled a planned trip to Lebanon, delivering Saudi- Lebanese relations a major setback, local media said.
The Saudi monarch, who is visiting the Far East, pulled out of the Lebanese visit, scheduled for this month, allegedly over displeasure concerning statements by Lebanese President Michel Aoun regarding Hezbollah’s weapons, a report in the Lebanese daily An- Nahar stated.
The article, which quoted unidentified Saudi sources, said King Salman’s visit was meant to express Riyadh’s wish to help Lebanon and “encourage it to fulfil its Arab and international obligations and the settlement that ended the presidential vacuum”.
“The visit was supposed to give Lebanon a strong moral and political boost from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and ensure the unconditional return of Arab and Gulf tourists to Beirut. It was to be accompanied by tangible economic support for the Lebanese state,” the sources added.
The report in An-Nahar coincided with a visit from French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Beirut. A statement from Aoun’s office said France was committed to “well-organised and robust Lebanese armed forces”.
There was, however, no mention of Saudi Arabia unfreezing a $3 billion military and security aid package, which the kingdom had suspended out of concern that it would benefit Hezbollah.
Earlier this year, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he was confident Riyadh would restore the aid package. That was, however, before the Lebanese president’s statement on Hezbollah’s arms.
The suspension of the military grant and subsequent travel bans stemmed from the failure of Lebanon to condemn an attack on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016.
During a televised interview with Egyptian media in February, Aoun defended Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm, describing the Iran-sponsored militia as complementary to the Lebanese army. Aoun told Egypt’s CBC that Tehran’s support for the militia “could continue indefinitely”.
“As long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel… we feel the need for its existence,” Aoun said, adding that: “It is no longer an urgent matter to discuss the need to strip Hezbollah of its weapons, because Israel continues to occupy our lands and is seeking to take over Lebanon’s waters.”
Aoun’s defence of Hezbollah arms drew international condemnation as well as a scolding by the United Nations. UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag tweeted the day after Aoun’s interview in Egypt that: “UN Resolution 1701 is vital for Lebanon’s stability and security. The resolution calls for disarmament of all armed groups. No arms outside control of state.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Hezbollah’s arms illegitimate. He told supporters in Beirut that he would not change his stance on Hezbollah or the Syrian regime, both of which are accused of assassinating his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in a 2005 car bombing.
In February 2016, after Lebanon refused to back Riyadh in its dispute with Tehran, Saudi Arabia and fellow GCC members the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain banned their citizens from travelling to Lebanon and asked those living there to leave due to safety concerns.
Relations improved late last year with a deal in which Aoun became president under the condition that Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, be installed as prime minister.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon appeared to be warmest in February when the kingdom stated it would be appointing a new ambassador in Beirut, having withdrawn its envoy in the summer of 2016.
The announcement was made on the Lebanese presidency’s official Twitter account on February 6th after Aoun met with Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, who delivered the message that the kingdom’s national carrier would be increasing flights to Beirut, with the return of Saudi tourists to support Lebanon’s tourism industry. That was before Aoun’s interview on Egyptian television.