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The New Arab

Lebanese president aims at patching relations with Saudi Arabia

It's hoped that Michael Aoun's appointment will end political impasse in Lebanon [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 8 January, 2017

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President Michel Aoun has made a shuttle stop visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in an attempt to repair ties with Lebanon's regional partners.

President Michel Aoun will make his first overseas tour as Lebanon's leader next week with a high-ranking Lebanese delegation, including senior ministers, visiting Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The visit has been touted as an opportunity for Aoun to mend ties with Gulf states following months of fraught relations over Beirut's choice of regional allies, and comes after Riyadh invited the president to stop in kingdom.

"President Aoun's visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at normalising Lebanese-Saudi relations and boosting them in all fields," the palace told Lebanon's The Daily Star this week.

Beirut's move towards an Iranian-led axis has angered Saudi Arabia, which was Riyadh and its GCC allies retaliate with a series on reprisals.

The president's aide hinted that he might use the opportunity to redress the situation and look for an end to Riyadh's punitive acts, including a decision to cut military aid to Lebanon in February.

"The Saudi military grant will be among topics to be discussed by the president. But it's up to Saudi officials to reinstate it."

Saudi Arabia was particularly angered after Lebanon refused to back regional and pan-Islamic condemnations of the sacking of Riyadh's diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2015.

Many in Saudi Arabia believed the attacks were planned, or allowed, by the Tehran government in response to Riyadh's execution of a popular Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

Lebanon's apparent decision to take Iran's side in the fracas was seen as a betrayal by many in Saudi Arabia after decades of GCC support, and led to a series a retaliatory measures aimed at hurting Beirut's flailing economy.

Gulf citizens were warned by their foreign ministries to avoid visiting Lebanon citing risks of kidnap, discouraging summer retreats to the Mediterranean country.

Saudi Arabia reportedly barred Shia Lebanese citizens from entering the kingdom, while its Gulf allies expelled dozens of allegedly Hizballah-linked Shia-Lebanese expatriates which most saw as purely punitive.

Aoun is part of a Lebanese political bloc that includes Hizballah, which holds close ties to Iran and the Syrian regime.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia appeared to back a deal between rival parties in Lebanon in October, which saw Aoun become president after a two-year deadlock.

Aoun will reportedly meet King Salman al-Saudi first, before visiting Qatar's Emir Tamim al-Thani on Wednesday and Thursday with his defence, finance, interior, foreign affairs, education, economy, information and the state ministers in hand, according to The Daily Star

It is also thought that Aoun will work on establishing closer defence ties with Saudi Arabia and look at regional collaboration to secure Lebanon from threats of terrorism or internal strife. 

Either way, the visit marks an important step for a country with many split allegiances, but ultimately tied to remittances from citizens working in the Gulf and investments from GCC businesses.

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