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Middle East

Lebanon mending ties with Gulf states

Lebanese president Michael Aoun has just returned from a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Why does Lebanon want to improve its relations with the Gulf nations and how does the Arab media view the rapprochement?

The trip, which began on Monday in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh, is the first international visit that Aoun has made since his term began in October. Beirut and Riyadh's relationship soured last year when Lebanon failed to condemn Iranian protesters at Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran. Lebanon's move to back President Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, while Saudi Arabia supports the opposition, has been an additional source of tension.

"Relations with Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia at the forefront, have been restored," Aoun was quoted as saying on his plane back to Beirut on Thursday. "The Lebanese will witness more Gulf activity in Lebanon than before."

Many people in Lebanon view Aoun, who is backed by Lebanese Shia paramilitary organization Hezbollah, as a figure of stability in the country. He hopes that Saudi Arabia will restore the $4 billion (3.76 billion euros) in military aid that it took away last year amid diplomatic tensions.

"Realist politics and national interests is what led President Aoun to visit the Gulf states," wrote journalist Scarlett Haddad in the Francophone Lebanese newspaper "L'orient Le Jour."

Libanon Saad Hariri und Michel Aoun in Beirut (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Nohra)

Prime Minister al-Hariri and President Aoun are pushing for improved relations with the Gulf states

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who serves as the head of government in Lebanon, told the country's National News Agency: "You will witness a big openness in the relations, the return of Saudi tourists and investments to Lebanon and all that contributes to economic advancement."

Aoun also met Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Two two decided to start a joint economic committee to encourage trade between their countries. 

Saudi media welcome change

The Saudi media welcomed Lebanon to reopening ties with the kingdom. They blame perceived past mistakes in Lebanon on Iranian-backed Hezbollah playing a major role in the country's politics. Hezbollah has also taken part in the Syrian civil war, on behalf of Assad regime.

"Aoun's visit expresses a lot during this difficult and sensitive time," wrote Saudi journalist Mshari al-Thaydi in an editorial for Saudi pro-government news outlet al-Arabiya. "Lebanon has been overcoming strong political pitfalls due to the Syrian conflict, in which Lebanon has strongly got involved with its men, media, speeches, preaches and fatwas."

Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are calling for an end to Hezbollah's role in Lebanese politics, which they believe makes Lebanon by proxy under Iran's sphere of influence. 

"The Gulf states and the rest of the Arab world would like to see Lebanon to return to mainstream Arab positions. They want Lebanon to stop following Iran," wrote the editorial board of the UAE-based "Gulf News" daily.

Aoun, showing once again that he is a realist in his foreign policy, said in his interview with London Arabic paper "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" Wednesday: "We have normal relations with Iran," and that "shouldn't be a barrier in the face of normal relations with the Arab world."

Support within Lebanon

Libanesische Hisbollah Anhänger (picture alliance/AP Photo/H.Malla)

Hezbollah could prove to be an obstacle to renewed ties between Gulf states and Lebanon

Anti-Hezbollah parties in Lebanon also see the rapprochement as a positive step. The Democratic Left Movement (DLM) supports the effort but believes Hezbollah will attempt to sabotage negotiations. 

Walid Fakredinne, secretary for the DLM, told DW Arabic in an interview Thursday that "Hezbollah will definitely engage in some sort of obstruction" regarding renewed Lebanese-Saudi ties. He added that Hezbollah could try to "disrupt military aid from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon."

Louis Hobeika, a professor of economics at Lebanon's Notre Dame University-Louaize, disagrees with this notion. In an interview with Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, he said he believes that Hezbollah "welcomed the visit to Riyadh."

"Hezbollah people are Lebanese, and they know that if the Lebanese economy functions well, Hezbollah and the people of Hezbollah will beneft too... And in my view they are interested in that visit," he said. 

Lebanese President Aoun, as head of state, has limited direct powers - his role is more ceremonial. His ascent to the presidency in October of last year broke a 29-month deadlock. Lebanon had not had a president since Michel Suleiman's term ended in May 2014.

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