It is significant that Lebanese President Michel Aoun is making his first trip as president to Saudi Arabia, as Lebanon has to work hard to regain the trust of its Arab allies in the region. Aoun wants to revive Gulf tourism in Lebanon and restore military cooperation between the two countries, but first he has to listen to the Saudis more carefully than anyone in the Lebanese government has done for some time.
The previously close links between the two states finally collapsed last year when Lebanon failed to condemn Iranian attacks on the Saudi embassy and other missions in Iran in January 2016. The Saudis were right to regard this as a deliberate snub by the Lebanese, as the Iranians were very wrong to protest over the execution of Saudi citizens that had called for the destabilisation of the Saudi state, amongst other crimes, including fostering sectarian hatred. The individuals had been tried by a Saudi court and found guilty, so the Iranian efforts to create mischief from this totally internal matter was outrageous. This is why the Saudi government suspended nearly $4 billion (Dh14.71 billion) in arms support to Lebanon in 2016, as well as issuing a travel advisory stopping its citizens from going to Lebanon. This was a heavy blow as tourism is one of Lebanon’s most important financial sectors, even if it generated less than $4 billion for the country last year, compared to $8.4 billion in 2010.
The Gulf states and the rest of the Arab world would like to see Lebanon return to mainstream Arab positions. They want Lebanon to stop following Iran — as it has been doing under Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who also heads the Free Patriotic Movement, which is the main party of the March 8 Alliance, that includes the two big Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah. In 2016, Bassil seemed to be working more for Hezbollah and its Iranian masters than the Lebanese government as he followed deliberately pro-Hezbollah policies, which infuriated many of Lebanon’s Arab allies, and the Saudis in particular, as they were rightly offended that Lebanon failed to condemn the attacks on their missions in Iran.
The way forward is for Aoun to ensure that the government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and his foreign minister in particular, takes a more pro-Arab line and avoids parroting Iran. This will be very easy if Hezbollah abandons its allegiance to Iran and becomes a normal Lebanese political party.