King Sal­man vows to stand by Le­banon, pre­serve ties

Monarch voices con­fi­dence in Aoun’s abil­ity to steer coun­try to safety and sta­bil­ity

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Hasan Lakkis

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.

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