Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (L) and Lebanese President Michel Aoun following a meeting in Riyadh. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has cancelled his upcoming trip to Lebanon because of the statements made by President Michel Aoun that praised Hezbollah and backed the militia’s right to bear arms alongside the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

According to a report in Al Nahar daily, the Saudi leader planned to visit Lebanon in late March 2017 to express Riyadh’s “desire to help the Lebanese state and encourage it to fulfil its Arab and international obligations.”

King Salman, who welcomed Aoun in Riyadh on January 10, 2017, was hoping to ease tense relations between the two countries.

This visit was largely touted as starting a new chapter in the bilateral relations and Saudi Arabia was set to restore its financial assistance to the Lebanese army.

“The visit was supposed to give Lebanon a strong moral and political boost from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states, and ensure the unconditional return of Arab and Gulf tourists to Beirut. It was to be accompanied by tangible economic support for the Lebanese state,” an unnamed Saudi source told Al Nahar.

Lebanese hoped the visit would restore vital economic ties and that Saudi Arabia would give Lebanon $3 billion (Dh11 billion) to purchase French weapons for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) which it had previously withheld after Jibran Bassil, the Minister of Foreign Affairs who heads the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, voted against the unanimous Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation resolutions that condemned the January 5, 2016 Iranian attacks on Saudi missions in Iran.

Observers point out that Riyadh has taken a more realistic approach to Lebanon, accepting Hezbollah as a local player, but, at the same time, rejecting its bullying tactics in the Lebanese government.

Riyadh also rejects Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, where it has fought alongside regime troops and bolstered Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s grip on power.

In an interview to an Egyptian TV channel last month, President Aoun defended Hezbollah’s arsenal calling it “an essential component of the means to defend Lebanon”.

His statement drew wide condemnation from Lebanese society and the Arab world, who believe the Iran-backed group activities contribute to the destabilisation of the region.

Hezbollah’s arms and influence has also been a sticking point for Saudi Arabia, which is currently engaged in Yemen’s civil war against Iran-backed Al Houthi militants.

Riyadh is also incensed over recent speeches by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah where he escalated his rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and the UAE over their involvement in the war in Yemen.