By Ahmed al-Masri
BEIRUT (AA): Lebanese President Michel Aoun set out for Saudi capital Riyadh on Monday for his first official visit abroad since assuming office late last October, Lebanese media has reported.
According to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, the visit comes in response to an invitation from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
Repairing Lebanon’s strained relations with the Gulf States, which have been plagued by mounting tension in recent years, is regarded as one of Aoun’s most daunting tasks as president.
Saudi-Lebanon ties have been dogged by tension due to ongoing differences over the conflict in Syria (where Lebanon’s Hizbullah has fought alongside the Assad regime); an attack on two Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran by Iranian demonstrators early last year; and the subsequent decision by Riyadh to suspend military aid to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia accuses Hizbullah of taking its orders from Tehran — considered Riyadh’s main competitor in the region — and dominating Lebanese politics.Ties began to thaw after Aoun was elected in October in a deal that also saw Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician, Saad al-Hariri, appointed prime minister.
In a statement on Monday, Hariri said Aoun’s Riyadh visit was an important step to “normalise Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states”.
The Lebanese Presidency said in a statement that eight ministers would accompany Aoun on his visit, due to last until Wednesday. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is accompanying Aoun, said on Saturday that the president would discuss the military grants to Lebanon which were put on hold last year. Aoun would like his trip, part of a tour that will also take him to Qatar and Iran.
Additional report from Reuters
[Photo: Lebanese President Michel Aoun/Creative Commons]