Michel Aoun begins Middle East tour in Saudi Arabia

President is expected to focus on re-establishing military ties and reviving Lebanon’s ailing tourism sector.

Lebanon President Michel Aoun has travelled to Saudi Arabia on his first official diplomatic trip, with hopes of restoring ties that soured last year over an attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran.

Aoun’s visit to Riyadh on Monday – the first in a series of stops in neighbouring countries – is expected to focus on reviving tourism in Lebanon and restoring military cooperation between the two countries.

The Saudi government suspended nearly $4bn in arms support to Lebanon last year, as well as issuing a travel advisory to its citizens against going to Lebanon.

One of Lebanon’s most important financial sectors, tourism generated less than $4bn for the country last year, compared to $8.4bn in 2010 – with visitors from neighbouring Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, having dropped significantly.

The Saudi government took the measures against Lebanon because it said the country had failed to condemn what it considered to be attacks on its diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016.

The protests in Tehran at the Saudi embassy followed the execution of 47 people, including the Shia Muslim leader, Nimr al-Nimr, in Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia subsequently cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, and cooled relations with Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim political and social movement that is politically allied with Iran, enjoys significant influence.

READ MORE: The history of Hezbollah, from Israel to Syria

Despite that, Hezbollah – with which Aoun is allied – has welcomed the president’s trip to Riyadh. 

“Hezbollah has said that President Aoun should go to Saudi Arabia,” Louis Hobeika, a political analyst, said.

“They understand perfectly – after all, Hezbollah people are Lebanese – and they know that if the Lebanese economy functions well, Hezbollah and the population of Hezbollah will benefit too … And in my view they are interested in that visit.”

Aoun was elected president in October 2016 after the country’s top official political post was left vacant for more than two years. 

The country was without a head of state for 29 months due to political infighting that prevented a quorum from forming in parliament.

Following his trip to Saudi Arabia, Aoun is also expected to visit Qatar.

Source: Al Jazeera