Political News

Lebanon's new president visits Saudi Arabia

Posted January 10

— Lebanon's newly elected president met Tuesday with the Saudi king during his first visit to the kingdom, a meeting that could melt the ice between the two countries after relations became strained over divisions on Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The kingdom's state news agency SPA said the 83-year-old Michel Aoun, who arrived on Monday along with eight ministers, was first received by the Riyadh governor, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud.

On Tuesday, Aoun met with King Salman at the Yamama palace in Riyadh where he received a red-carpet reception, SPA said.

A former general, Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country's top post since the term of President Michel Suleiman ended in May 2014. Lebanon's political factions are deeply divided with some, like Aoun's Christian party and the Hezbollah militant group, aligning with Iran and their opponents siding with Saudi Arabia.

Last February, Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon, a decision linked to the kingdom's tensions with Iran. The deal, aimed at equipping and supporting the Lebanese military, is part of the talks agenda, according to Aoun, who gave an interview with the Saudi state-run Al-Ekhbariyah TV.

In December, the 128-member Lebanese parliament approved a new national unity government headed by Lebanon's top Saudi ally, Saad Hariri. He endorsed Aoun, ending the long standing deadlock between the two old-time foes.

Hariri is a longtime critic of Hezbollah's support for the Syrian government in that country's ongoing civil war. The militant group has sent thousands of its members to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

Salman and Aoun discussed bilateral relations, SPA said but didn't elaborate.

Aoun, however, told Al-Ekhbariyah TV that besides discussing the arms deal, there will be a "general assessment of the situation, no doubt." He blamed the strained Saudi-Lebanese relations on the "events in the Arab countries."

"I am here today to remove such ambiguities while carrying with me love and friendship to the Saudi people," he said.

Aoun also emphasized that his country doesn't fear political turmoil as the latest arrangements gave the country "immunity."

The Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions over the past five years, with clashes and bombings that have killed scores. He added that the increase in Syrian refugees in Lebanon adds a burden on the small Mediterranean country. Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million Syrian refugees, or a quarter of the country's population.

Saudi daily newspaper Okaz wrote on Monday that Aoun's visit was an attempt to heal "previous breaches" between the two countries and end attempts by "foreign powers, which aim at taking control over Lebanon's fate" — a thinly-veiled reference to Iran, the htop regional rival to Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

Aoun is a controversial figure in Lebanese politics, although he has a strong base of support from many Christians and Shiite Muslims.

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