President Michel Aoun said Monday his visit to Saudi Arabia was aimed at improving Lebanese-Saudi ties strained by the upheavals in some Arab countries, and expanding cooperation between the two countries in all fields.
Aoun spoke shortly after he arrived in Riyadh Monday night on the first leg of a tour that will also take him to Qatar, and mainly aimed at boosting ties with Arab Gulf states and seeking to remove the advisory against Gulf citizens traveling to Lebanon.
“Lebanese-Saudi relations have been affected by events that happened in Arab countries. I am here today to dispel misunderstandings that happened, carrying cordiality and friendship to the Saudi people,” Aoun said in an interview with the Saudi Al-Ekhbariya channel.
He said he brought with him eight ministers to meet with their Saudi counterparts and discuss together the scopes of cooperation in all fields between the kingdom and Lebanon.
Aoun is accompanied by a high-ranking delegation that includes the ministers of foreign affairs, education, finance, defense, interior, economy, information and minister of state for presidential affairs. The two-day official visit to Riyadh, at the invitation of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, is Aoun’s first foreign trip since he was elected as president on Oct. 31.
Bolstering bilateral ties, fighting terrorism, the revival of suspended Saudi grants worth $4 billion to the Lebanese Army and security forces, and the removal of an advisory against Gulf citizens traveling to Lebanon are expected to figure high in Aoun’s talks with King Salman and other senior Saudi officials Tuesday.Lebanese official sources said the talks will cover the return of Saudi tourists to Lebanon, reviving cooperation between the two countries to combat terrorism and reactivating financial and banking cooperation. The talks will also deal with reactivating tourism and the return of Gulf tourists to Lebanon, the sources said.
At the regional level, the Lebanese-Saudi talks will center on the kingdom’s vision toward developments in the region and efforts exerted to find a peaceful settlement to the 6-year-old Syrian conflict, the sources said.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised Aoun’s Saudi visit, saying it was important to normalize Lebanon’s ties with the kingdom and Gulf states. “Today, the visit of President Michel Aoun to Saudi Arabia started, and we consider it an important step in the right track to normalize Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Gulf states,” Hariri said during a meeting at the Grand Serail with a delegation from the Union of Beiruti families.
A ministerial source accompanying the Lebanese delegation said he hoped that Aoun’s talks with Saudi officials would lead to restoring “cordial and friendly” relations between the two countries.
Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries became strained in February last year when Riyadh halted a $3 billion grant to buy arms from France for the Lebanese Army, in addition to another $1 billion grant to strengthen the military and security forces. The move was in protest at perceived hostile stances against the kingdom linked to Hezbollah and Iran at Arab League and Islamic meetings.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states also warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon in what appeared to be a punitive measure over the Lebanese government’s pro-Hezbollah policies.
In the TV interview, Aoun said Lebanon had managed to shield itself from the fallout of wars raging in the volatile region. “We have succeeded in preserving security and stability within the Lebanese border, given what might be caused by wars currently raging in the region,” he said.
Referring to the 1975-90 Civil War and the Saudi-sponsored Taif Accord that ended the conflict, he said: “We have been through an experiment in the 1970s. We have learned and we want everyone to learn that such internal wars will end only with a political solution. We have been through a similar experiment and we reached the Taif Accord in the kingdom. We hope that others will adopt a political solution.”
Aoun, who had fiercely opposed the Taif Accord in 1989, stressed in the interview that there is no need for “a new Taif accord because we have the capability to make certain changes [to the accord] if we deem a need for them.”
He said the security situation in Lebanon has been fortified by “a minimum of understanding” among various Lebanese factions.
Aoun called for combined efforts by all countries to fight terrorism. “We are fighting terrorism on our border to prevent infiltration into Lebanese territory,” he said. He added that the Lebanese intelligence agencies are carrying out “pre-emptive operations and arresting terrorists who infiltrated into Lebanon.”
“We all need to cooperate to fight terrorism … We need to cooperate with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all states because terrorism is no longer confined to the Middle East states, but has spread to the entire world in America, Europe and Arab states as is happening now,” he said.
On the possibility of cooperation with Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism, Aoun said the exchange of information and expertise in this respect would be good and desired. “During the visit, we will discuss all possible topics, including the possibility of [Saudi Arabia] extending assistance to the Lebanese Army,” he said.
Aoun called for a peaceful settlement to the crisis in Syria in order to allow Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.
On arrival at King Khaled Airport in Riyadh, Aoun and the accompanying delegation were received by the Governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdul-Aziz, State Minister Ibrahim Assaf, and other Saudi officials, as well as by the Lebanese Ambassador to the kingdom, Abdel Sattar Issa, and Lebanese Embassy staff.
Aoun is set to meet King Salman Tuesday at the Royal Court in Riyadh, where Lebanese and Saudi national anthems will be played during a red carpet reception before the two leaders review a guard of honor. The Saudi king will host a lunch for Aoun and the accompanying delegation before official talks begin between the two sides, to be followed by one-to-one meeting between Aoun and King Salman.
From Riyadh, 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 Hamid 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).