King Salman vows to stand by Lebanon, preserve ties
Monarch voices confidence in Aoun’s ability to steer country to safety and stability
RIYADH: Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Tuesday pledged to maintain“historic ties” between the kingdom and Lebanon, voicing confidence in President Michel Aoun’ s ability to steer the country to safety and stability, in the clearest sign that bilateral relations have been normalized.
Aoun wrapped up a two-day official visit to Riyadh with crucial talks with the king and Saudi ministers, centering on bolstering bilateral ties, the revival of frozen Saudi grants worth $4 billion to the Lebanese Army and security forces, the removal of an advisory against Gulf citizens traveling to Lebanon, and cooperation to fight terrorism.
A few hours after the Aoun-Salman meeting at the Royal Palace, Lebanese officials denied an AFP report that Saudi Arabia had agreed to restore a $3 billion military aid package that Riyadh froze last year, saying that it was still premature to talk about the lifting of the blockage.
During a half-hour closed meeting with Salman ahead of the official talks between the two sides, Aoun asked the king for the reactivation of the Saudi military grant to Lebanon, an official Lebanese source told The Daily Star.
The king promised that Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would discuss with Lebanese officials the possibility of reinstating the aid package when he returns from abroad, the source said. He added that the king also promised to appoint a new ambassador to Lebanon.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri sounded very confident that Aoun’s
visit would lead to the return of Saudi tourists and investments in Lebanon.
“The most important [thing] is the meeting between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [Salman] and the president. You will witness a big openness in the relations, the return of Saudi tourists and investments to Lebanon and all that contributes to economic advancement,” Hariri said during a meeting with the Press Federation board at the Grand Serail.
In discussing regional developments with Aoun, Salman stressed that Saudi Arabia does not interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs and that other countries should do the same, the source said, in a clear reference to Iran, which wields great influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah.
The monarch tasked officials with reviewing the economic, security, military and tourism issues the president brought up during the meeting, a statement issued by Aoun’s media office said.
Explaining the country’s policies during his six-year tenure, Aoun told the Saudi king that Lebanon would be open toward all Arab countries and would not interfere in their internal affairs, the source said.
According to the source, Aoun and Salman laid down the foundations for tackling the issues they discussed, including the resumption of Saudi Airlines flights to Lebanon, and left them to ministers of both countries to follow them up.
Aoun, who invited the king to visit Lebanon, said he considered that a new page had been opened in Saudi-Lebanese ties and that bilateral relations had been normalized, the source added.
Shortly after Aoun arrived at the Royal Palace where he was received by Salman during a red carpet welcome, the king hosted a lunch for the president and the accompanying delegation before the start of official talks attended by ministers from both countries.
During the expanded talks and the closed meeting with Aoun, the monarch stressed that the kingdom would stand on Lebanon’s side and was happy with the return of normal conditions to the country. He also vowed to maintain “historic ties” between the two countries.
Addressing Aoun, Salman said: “Despite the difficulties you are facing, our confidence in your excellency is great that you will steer Lebanon to the shores of safety and stability.”
“There is no substitute for Lebanon. The kingdom, which is bound with this country by historic ties, is willing to maintain and develop them,” he said. The king added that he had instructed Saudi officials to exchange visits with their Lebanese counterparts, and also Saudi citizens who have special love for Lebanon, according to a statement released by the president’s media office. The king stressed that Lebanon should remain “a symbol of coexistence, which is the basis of its stability, no matter the differences among the Lebanese.”
Thanking Salman for his sympathy, Aoun stressed his keenness on “reactivating and expanding Lebanese-Saudi relations and bringing it back to its previous strong status.”
“The historic ties binding the Lebanese and Saudis will continue. Our visit to Saudi Arabia is only a confirmation of this,” Aoun said.
Later in the day, addressing Lebanese expatriates during a reception at the Lebanese Embassy in Riyadh, Aoun said: “I want to reassure you that Lebanese-Saudi ties will return to their purity and clarity. The coming days will prove this.”
“Lebanon, after a phase of vacuum, is starting again in a developmental leap and a reassuring security leap for the future. Your motherland is now safe and has begun a new stage,” he said.
Ahead of his talks with Salman, Aoun held a series of meetings with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Commerce and Investment Minister Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasbi and Culture and Information Minister Adel al-Turaifi.
In discussing the situation in Syria, Jubeir spoke of foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict, in a clear reference to Hezbollah’s deep involvement, the same source said. In response, Aoun said that there are states and nations that have intervened in the Syrian situation and called for a political settlement to end the conflict, the source added.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil also held talks with Jubeir, who said that the kingdom was seeking to improve Lebanese-Saudi ties in all fields at the “best possible level.”
“I am looking forward to working with my counterpart and friend to restore bilateral relations between the two countries to the best possible level,” Jubeir told reporters after meeting Bassil.
Asked if relations have been normalized between the two countries, the Saudi minister said: “Relations between the kingdom and Lebanon are historic. Cordiality between the two peoples still exists and will continue. We will seek to improve commercial matters and intensify political consultations.”
“We think that Lebanon has overcome a difficult stage with the election of a president and the formation of a new government,” he said. “We wish all the best for Lebanon and we try [to ensure that Lebanon] is independent and free of foreign interference.”
Aoun leaves Wednesday for the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar for another two-day official visit at the invitation of emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Among other things, media reports said that Aoun is expected to discuss with Qatari officials the case of nine abducted Lebanese soldiers held captive by Daesh (ISIS).
King Salman and Aoun confer during the latter’s first foreign visit as president.