Lebanese president Aoun travels to Riyadh
Riyadh // Lebanon’s Hizbollah-backed president Michel Aoun landed in Saudi Arabia on Monday, his first trip to the kingdom since taking office after a tense year in Saudi-Lebanese ties.
The election of Mr Aoun, 81, in November by Lebanese legislators ended a two-year deadlock between Iran and Saudi-backed blocs in parliament.
The Maronite Christian, a former army chief, clinched the post with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after Riyadh’s concerns about the role played by Hizbollah in Lebanon’s government.
The Iran-allied Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of president Bashar Al Assad.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to Mr Al Assad.
Riyadh last March declared Hizbollah a terrorist organisation and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.
In February the kingdom halted a US$3 billion (Dh11bn) programme of military aid to Lebanon in protest against what it said was “the stranglehold of Hizbollah on the state”.
Syria’s five-year war has been a major fault line for Lebanon’s politics.
Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and founder of the independent Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, said he expected the stalled military aid to figure in Mr Aoun’s talks with Saudi officials.
The programme, funded by Riyadh, would have provided vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannon and other military equipment from France.
“The only way for peace in Lebanon is to support Aoun,” Mr Eshki said.
“The main goal of Saudi Arabia is to make Lebanon peaceful and independent”, and that includes its army, he said.
Mr Aoun’s arrival in Riyadh follows a late-November visit to Beirut by Prince Khaled Al Faisal, the governor of Mecca who is also an adviser to King Salman.
Prince Khaled’s visit showed that “Saudi Arabia did not disengage itself from Lebanon,” Tariq Alhomayed, former editor in chief of the pan-Arab Asharq Al Awsat, wrote in a column for the newspaper.
By meeting Mr Aoun, Mr Hariri and other government officials – rather than party leaders – Prince Khaled sent a message of support for the Lebanese state, Alhomayed wrote.
Tens of thousands of foreign workers at Saudi Oger, a construction firm led by Mr Hariri, have gone months without salaries in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government says it will pay early this year the arrears it owes to private firms, chiefly in the construction sector, as a result of collapsed oil revenues.
* Agence France-Presse
Updated: January 10, 2017 04:00 AM