Although a Syrian ally, a friend of Hizbullah and close to the Iranian camp in the region, Lebanese President Michel Aoun chose to visit Saudi Arabia this week on his first overseas trip since he was elected president after a historic deal with his old rival and Saudi ally leader of the Lebanese Future Current Saad Al-Hariri.
Aoun was invited to visit Saudi Arabia when a senior Saudi delegation led by Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, envoy of Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, met with Aoun after his appointment as Lebanon’s new president, extending an invitation from King Salman to visit Saudi Arabia as soon as possible.
The Saudi trip is a break from the Lebanese tradition of the president’s visiting France on his first overseas trip to the West and Syria in the Arab world.
The visit was an expression of gratitude after Saudi Arabia lifted what Aoun had described as a “veto” by Saudi Arabia against his becoming Lebanon’s president. Once Riyadh had distanced itself from this matter, Al-Hariri was able to take the decision to endorse Aoun.
The trip also sent a message of reassurance, because although Aoun is the choice of Syria and Iran for Lebanon’s president and the candidate of Hizbullah, this does not mean that Riyadh’s role in Lebanon and the region has been diminished despite the defeat of its allies in the Syrian opposition.
Another significant message of the trip is that it sought to normalise relations with the Gulf countries, as Lebanese Foreign Minister and Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil put it. More accurately, the trip was intended to mend them after several setbacks, some of which Bassil had been party to because of his behaviour during meetings of the Arab and Islamic countries on issues related to the Saudi-Iranian dispute.
The trip was an opportunity for Aoun to take the initiative in mending Saudi-Lebanese relations after attempts to appease Riyadh by Al-Hariri and former Lebanese prime minister Tamam Sallam had failed as a result of Bassil’s refusing to join the Arab consensus in condemning Iran and Hizbullah.
Ironically, Bassil was part of the official delegation travelling with Aoun, indicating an end to Saudi Arabia’s previous coolness towards him.
The visit also confirmed that Lebanon under Aoun’s leadership would maintain its ties to the Gulf countries. Aoun wanted to confirm Lebanon’s Arab identity and the regime based on the Taif Agreement that ended the country’s civil war, a key political achievement that established Saudi Arabia’s influence in Lebanon.
It conveyed the message that Saudi Arabia continues to be at the forefront on the Lebanese stage even though the candidate of the rival camp succeeded in winning the presidency.
The trip should also prevent any future problems about Aoun visiting Syria or Iran. It has several economic and social goals, including support for influential Lebanese expatriates in the Gulf countries whose remittances are a key source of revenue for Lebanon and are estimated at $5 billion.
The status of these expatriates was seriously affected by tensions between Hizbullah and the Gulf states, and several were threatened with expulsion because of Gulf concerns about their connections to the group.
Although only a few were expelled in the end, the issue was a serious psychological burden for Lebanese society since expatriate communities, especially in the Gulf, are a main source of income and foreign currency.
The trip should also bring back Gulf tourists to Lebanon, with these constituting a main contingent in Lebanon’s tourism industry, after they all but disappeared because of the crisis with Saudi Arabia and tensions between the Gulf and Hizbullah.
“Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz made important statements in the presence of Aoun, and was emotional and responsible,” said Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nehad Al-Mashnouq, a leading member of the Future Current who has close Gulf connections.
“He also talked about the return of the Saudis to Lebanon next summer.” If that were to happen, it would be a great achievement since Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are vital to the Lebanese economy. In 2010, Gulf tourists constituted 30 per cent of all tourists visiting Beirut.
The Gulf tourists are not only significant because of their numbers alone, but also because of their spending power which is higher than that of other tourists. Aoun conveyed a message to Qatar and Saudi Arabia that he hoped the stability in Lebanon would be reflected in the return of the Gulf tourists to Beirut.
Lebanon had not only lost tourists as a result of the crisis, but also Gulf investors, especially in real estate, since many properties are designated for Gulf tourists and investors only.
Another key element of the visit was the return of Saudi aid to the Lebanese army to the tune of $3 billion to buy weapons from France, earmarked by the late Saudi king Abdullah. The money had been suspended because of Lebanon’s positions at Arab and Saudi meetings.
The outcome of the talks is still unclear, although Al-Mashnouq noted that “the Saudi aid to the Lebanese army was suspended for political reasons and its continuation will have a political price.”
“Saudi Arabia could not continue its aid when this was derided in Lebanon. Today, the president has taken a different position, and Saudi Arabia is waiting for the promises that Aoun has made to be honoured. Matters are moving in the right direction regarding Lebanese-Arab relations.”
A sensitive issue in Lebanese-Saudi relations is Hizbullah. Al-Mashnouq said Aoun had informed Riyadh that Hizbullah’s engagement in the fighting in Syria was beyond the control of the state, though this could guarantee that Hizbullah would not carry out military operations inside Lebanon.
Hizbullah has not objected to Aoun’s visit, and its media channels have been covering the trip. The group, which views itself as the military victors in Syria and the political victors in Lebanon, is no longer worried about Saudi Arabia regaining some influence in Lebanon, especially if it leads to reviving the economy.
However, it seeks to remain in control of Lebanon’s politics and security, whether through its ally the president, through its military power or through coordination with the Lebanese army.
Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia appears to have been successful, and it establishes a rare independence in Lebanon’s history. The final word on its success, however, will depend on the progress that is made in tourism, armaments and the economy.