Saudi Arabia and Lebanon find accord once more

Relations between the two countries are warming up again – to the benefit of both countries, writes Maha Samara

Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz during his visit to Dubai in December 2016. AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD
Powered by automated translation

Saudi- Lebanese relations have warmed significantly following the recent visit of Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Gulf Affairs, to Beirut.

His visit had three key objectives: the return of the Saudi ambassador to Beirut, the lifting of the ban on Saudi tourists travelling to Lebanon and increasing the frequency of flights to and from Beirut.

The visit comes on the heels of a recent tour of the region by Lebanon’s new president Michel Aoun, who last month travelled to Saudi Arabia. Mr Aoun is indebted to the kingdom for supporting his presidential nomination despite his former alliance with Hizbollah.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has offered political and financial support to Lebanon.

The GCC countries host more than 400,000 Lebanese professionals and skilled workers whose remittances provide an important cushion to their families back home in Lebanon. Iran, while constantly seeking to assert itself throughout the Middle East, is not popular in Lebanon outside Hizbollah’s circles of influence.

Iranian interference in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and Hizbollah’s involvement in these three conflicts had previously complicated Lebanese-Saudi relations, especially after Iranian propaganda claimed dominance over four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa and Beirut.

Relations between the kingdom and Beirut had been further complicated by the long-running presidential vacuum – now filled by Mr Aoun – which had been at least partially created by Iranian intervention and Hizbollah’s threats.

Mr Aoun’s January visit to Saudi Arabia – a tour on which he was accompanied by seven ministers, reflecting the multisectarian political components of the country – allowed the Saudi leadership to listen to Mr Aoun’s plans before responding positively after watching the direction that the new Lebanese political settlement was taking.

The kingdom’s historical position on Lebanon was founded, in part, during the negotiations in 1989 for the Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war and restored peace and security.

The agreement, which established several principles – including the notion of Lebanon as a sovereign, free and independent country that is Arab in belonging and identity – became the long-standing framework for Lebanese-Saudi relations. This was exemplified by the appointment of Lebanese Saudi entrepreneur Rafik Hariri as prime minister in 1992.

Several Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait – played a significant role in the reconstruction of Lebanon in the early 1990s following the end of the civil war.

Saudi generosity was also evident in the funds that were poured into reconstruction after the civil war and again after the conflict with Israel.

Does the recent warming of diplomatic relations between the two countries point to a restoration of that historical accord? Only time will tell.

Maha Samara is a journalist in Beirut