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Lebanon's Aoun visits Riyadh to mend Saudi fences

Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, will discuss many issues in Riyadh, including aid to the Lebanese army and travel warnings to Lebanon
Lebanon is caught up in regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran (AFP)

Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday on his first visit abroad since his October election, which he won with the support of Riyadh's arch-foe Hezbollah. 

Aoun's trip, part of a tour that will also take him to Qatar and Iran, will seek to lift travel advisories imposed by some Gulf states last year on nationals visiting Lebanon, which severely damaged its tourism sector.

Lebanon is caught up in a regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh appeared to disengage from Lebanon over the past year in response to perceived snubs by Beirut in the struggles against Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain. 

In February, Riyadh cancelled a $3bn aid package for the Lebanese army and also advised big-spending Saudis not to visit Lebanon, which relies heavily on tourism.

Riyadh was irked by Lebanon's refusal to condemn attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, after the execution of Saudi Shia dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.   

This coincided with a financial crisis at the Saudi Oger construction firm belonging to the Hariri family, Saudi Arabia's main ally in Lebanon.

Tensions also cast a shadow on the fate of an estimated 750,000 Lebanese nationals living and working in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf Arab states, who transfer between $7-$8bn each year to support extensive families.

Ties began to thaw after Aoun was elected in October in a deal that also saw Lebanon's leading ally, Saad al-Hariri, voted prime minister.

Lebanese analysts said Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia carries a symbolic weight as his first presidential trip to a foreign nation.

Annahar newspaper columnist Sabine Oueiss wrote that Aoun's visit to Riyadh proves his credentials as a president for all Lebanese, not the head of a partisan movement.

"By choosing Saudi Arabia first, he succeeded in emphasising his position [as president] and Lebanon's position in its Arab surroundings and environment," she wrote.

In a statement on Monday, Hariri said Aoun's Riyadh visit was an important step to "normalise Lebanon's relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states".

While visiting Beirut in November, Saudi Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca and also a nephew of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, invited Aoun to visit his country.

Lebanese analysts said Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia carries a symbolic weight as his first presidential trip to a foreign nation

The Lebanese presidency said in a statement that eight ministers would accompany Aoun on his visit, due to last until Wednesday. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is accompanying Aoun, said on Saturday that the president would discuss the military grants to Lebanon, which were put on hold last year.

Aoun, who will meet the Saudi king, will also seek to activate economic, investment, aid and trade cooperation, including the frozen military aid. He said there would be a group meeting of all the ministerial delegation and then bilateral meetings between ministers.

In talks with Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Lebanese delegation will discuss making the issuance of work visas for Lebanese citizens easier.

Aoun is also expected to discuss Qatari help to free nine kidnapped Lebanese army soldiers believed to be held by Islamic State militants.