Melting ice, newly elected Lebanese president visits Saudi

AP News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2017 7:59 AM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Lebanon's newly elected president met on Tuesday with the Saudi king during his first visit to the kingdom, a meeting that could melt the ice between the two countries after relations became strained over divisions on Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

The kingdoms state news agency SPA said the 83-year-old Michel Aoun, who arrived on Monday along with eight ministers, was first received by Riyadh governor, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud.

On Tuesday, Aoun met with King Salman at the Yamama palace in Riyadh where he received a red-carpet reception, SPA said.

A former general, Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country's top post. Lebanon's political factions are deeply divided with some, like Aoun's Christian party and the Hezbollah militant group, aligning with Iran and their opponents siding with Saudi Arabia.

Last February, Saudi halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon, a decision linked to the kingdom's tensions with Iran.

In December, the 128-member Lebanese parliament approved a new national unity government headed by Lebanon's top Saudi ally, Saad Hariri. He endorsed Aoun, ending the long standing deadlock between the two old-time foes.

Hariri is a longtime critic of Hezbollah's support for the Syrian government in that country's ongoing civil war. The militant group has sent thousands of its members to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

Salman and Aoun discussed bilateral relations, SPA said but didn't elaborate.

Saudi daily Okaz wrote on Monday that Aoun's visit was an attempt to "heal the previous breaches" between the two countries and end attempts by "foreign powers, which aim at taking control over Lebanon's fate" — a thinly-veiled reference to Iran, Sunni powerhouse Saudi's top regional rival.