Beirut: President Michel Aoun will visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar next week in his capacity as head-of-state. Aoun will aim to normalise ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and, equally important, will seek a lift of the current ban on Arab Gulf citizens from travelling to Lebanon.
According to the Al Jumhuriyyah daily, Hezbollah did not object to Aoun’s travel to Saudi Arabia for his first presidential trip, which will also take him to Syria and Iran.
Aoun will head a high-ranking delegation of eight ministers — defence, finance, interior, foreign affairs, education, economy, information and the state minister for presidency affairs — on a two-day trip to Riyadh, from where he will travel on to Doha for another two-day visit.
These stops will be Aoun’s first international journeys since he was elected president on October 31, 2016, after a two and a half years vacancy at the head of the republic.
In Riyadh, Aoun is expected to hold talks with King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and other senior Saudi officials, focusing on bilateral ties.
Among various concerns that preoccupy Lebanon, three specific issues top the agenda, including vital economic ties, the Kingdom’s rescinded pledge to donate $3 billion to purchase French weapons for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and regional tensions that encompass the wars in Syria and Iraq.
On Saturday, the Chairman of the Federation of the Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Lebanon, Mohammad Choucair, told Al Sharq Al Awsat that Aoun’s visit to Saudi Arabia will restore ties back to normal.
He added: “The former Lebanese government has made mistakes against the Kingdom,” insisting that Lebanon cannot survive economically without the GCC States.
Choucair emphasised that remittances from Saudi Arabia earned by Lebanese nationals constituted as much as half of Lebanon’s financial annual returns.
There were an estimated 500,000 Lebanese nationals toiling in Saudi Arabia [with an additional 250,000 elsewhere in GCC member-states] who transferred between $7 and $8 billion each year to support extensive families.
Aoun, who once served as commander of the Lebanese army, is also expected to request advanced weapons from Riyadh.
It was unclear whether Saudi officials will reinstate the huge military grant, which was suspended after Jibran Bassil, the Minister of Foreign Affairs who heads the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, voted against the unanimous League of States (LAS) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) resolutions that condemned the January 5, 2016 Iranian attacks on Saudi missions in Iran.
Aoun was expected to raise the issue of free movement for Saudi and Lebanese citizens between the two countries, in an implicit reference to a Saudi ban on Lebanese Shiites.
In Doha, Aoun will hold talks with the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and other Qatari officials, centring on ways of expand bilateral relations too, although the two leaders were also expected to discuss vitally important Qatari aid to help free 9 kidnapped LAF soldiers alleged held by Daesh.
Ever since his election, Aoun stressed the need to improve relations with GCC countries, aware that the state’s survival depended on close ties with societies that welcomed so many Lebanese.
The Saudi Charge d’Affaires Walid Al Bukhari sounded optimistic as he welcomed the upcoming visit, declaring: “President Michel Aoun’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will have positive reactions on Lebanese-Saudi relations,” adding, “The kingdom did not and will not abandon Lebanon.”