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New Lebanese president makes Gulf priority

With a visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 10, new Lebanese President Michel Aoun has signaled that warmer relations with the Gulf is at the top of his priority list.
Saudi King Salman bin Abulaziz Al-Saud welcomes Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 10, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. - RTX2YAKR

Lebanese President Michel Aoun marked his first foreign policy success during his visit to Saudi Arabia Jan. 10. He broke the ice in the ties between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which have been tense for over a year due to the repercussions of the Saudi-Iranian tug-of-war on Lebanon.

The rhetoric of Saudi Arabia and its Lebanese March 14 coalition allies in the past few years emphasized that the Lebanese state had been hijacked by Hezbollah, which was violating Lebanon’s sovereignty with its military intervention in Syria and its meddling in Arab and Gulf affairs, especially in Yemen and Bahrain. As a result, in March 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) put Hezbollah on its terrorist list.

But Hezbollah denied these accusations and accused the kingdom of supporting and funding jihadi groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The party also blamed Saudi Arabia for the spread of Wahhabi thought in the Muslim world and condemned its war in Yemen and military intervention in Bahrain, as well as its support for the armed opposition in Syria to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On Dec. 3, 2013, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of plotting the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Nov. 19.

Also, Saudi Arabia had frozen the military aid grant for Lebanese security services in February 2016, after the Lebanese government failed to condemn the attacks carried out by Iranian protesters against Saudi diplomatic delegations in Iran.

For that reason, Aoun’s visit to Riyadh was considered an important step to restore the historical warm ties between the two countries. A large ministerial convoy accompanied Aoun in his first official visit abroad since his election on Oct. 31, 2016, and it received remarkable Saudi attention.

Before the Saudi invitation, Aoun had received invitations from Egypt and Iran, but he prioritized Saudi Arabia in his first foreign visit, due to the kingdom’s influence on Lebanon and the Muslim and Arab region. Besides, he wanted to mend ties between Beirut and Riyadh following the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah over Bahrain and Yemen, and the frozen $4 billion Saudi grant to the armament of the Lebanese army and security forces.

During the Syrian tutelage in Lebanon (1990-2005), the Lebanese president paid his first foreign visit to Damascus. But after the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Damascus no longer enjoys the same influence it did on Lebanon, and any president would hesitate to pay his first visit to Syria.

To regain its influence in Lebanon, the kingdom approved of Future Movement head Saad Hariri’s nomination of Aoun as president to end the presidential stalemate — although Aoun and Hariri are strange bedfellows politically and Aoun has good relations with the Future Movement’s enemy, Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia also sent a special envoy, Emir of Mecca Khaled Al-Faisal, on Nov. 21, to congratulate Aoun on his presidency and invited him to visit.

Aoun had prolonged one-on-one talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and said in Riyadh Jan. 10, “The historical relations between the Saudi and Lebanese people will persist.” He asserted Lebanon’s desire to strengthen cooperation ties with the kingdom in several fields, mainly in countering terrorism.

Salman underlined during the meeting that “Lebanon is irreplaceable." He said, "The relations between the two countries are historical, and we want to preserve and develop them.” He reiterated his “immense” trust in Aoun and noted, “You will lead Lebanon to safety and stability despite the current challenges.”

Salman added, “The kingdom does not meddle with Lebanon’s affairs, which concern the Lebanese people only.” He called on Saudi officials to “look into the security, economic, military and touristic issues that Aoun brought up.” He also told them to visit their Lebanese counterparts and urged Saudi citizens who love Lebanon to fly to it.

With his visit to Saudi Arabia and then Qatar on Jan. 11, Aoun sought to normalize Gulf-Lebanese relations, encourage Gulf tourists and investors to return to Lebanon, and increase economic ties with the Gulf countries to improve the deteriorating economic situation.

The visit was also important for Saudi Arabia to regain influence in Lebanon and reduce Iran’s power in the country.

The kingdom gave a warm welcome to Aoun and agreed to hold bilateral talks regarding the frozen Saudi grant to the Lebanese army and other bilateral cooperation affairs.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia referred Aoun’s demands to its officials because it does not want to hand Lebanon quick approval on a silver platter. The kingdom might have a set of conditions and tests for Aoun and the Lebanese government to make sure that Aoun and Hezbollah are distant and that the president can implement sovereign and independent policies far from the Iranian-Syrian influence.

Some pro-Saudi analysts believe that the first test for Aoun and his government will entail overseeing the nominations of pivotal positions in the state and security apparatus and looking out for the influence of Hezbollah and its allies on these nominations.

Aoun told Al Jazeera Jan. 11, “The misunderstanding with Gulf states has been cleared and the issue of aid to the Lebanese army — including the Saudi grant — was discussed … and the concerned Saudi ministers are currently reviewing the case. However, the issue of military aid has yet to be resolved, as France is also involved,” since Paris is the supplier of arms.

Aoun further noted that his visit to the kingdom did not irritate his allies (Hezbollah). He clarified that Hezbollah is involved in the regional conflicts and has become part of the international and regional crises whose solution is beyond Lebanon’s capacity. After all, the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also involved in these conflicts. He added that the Lebanese state cannot oppose Hezbollah, as the party represents a significant category of the Lebanese people. Aoun asserted, “We are trying to distance Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria from the Lebanese domestic situation.”

Head of Hezbollah’s Political Council Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed said from Tehran that Aoun’s visit “was a normal and regular one since Lebanon is a member of the Arab League.”

A source close to Hezbollah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the party trusts Aoun and his ability to strike a balance between improving Gulf-Lebanese relations and maintaining his alliance with the party. The source said that Aoun considers Hezbollah’s weapons as resistance weapons directed against the Israeli enemy and describes Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a pre-emptive operation to protect Lebanon from the potential arrival of terrorist groups.

It is worth noting that Aoun said in his inaugural speech in October, “We shall prevent, deter, counter and even eliminate terrorism.”

Despite its conflict with Saudi Arabia over regional and sectarian issues, Hezbollah acknowledges the importance of the kingdom and its politico-religious influence in Lebanon, as well as its economic role in terms of tourists, investors and aid to the country. For that reason, the Shiite party welcomes implicitly the restoring of the ties with Riyadh, but it will be cautious of any Saudi attempt to create a rift between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement led by Aoun.

For his part, Aoun may try to balance between his alliance with Hezbollah and its regional patrons and his rapprochement with Gulf states, as he understands the local and regional equations.

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