Saudi-Lebanese relations suffer setback

Sunday 12/03/2017
Not strong enough. Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) meeting with Lebanon’s newly appointed army chief General Joseph Aoun in Beirut, on March 8th. (AFP)

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.