BEIRUT/RIYADH (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun, an ally of Iran-backed Shi‘ite group Hezbollah, flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday on his first visit abroad since his October election hoping to ease tensions rooted in the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran.
Aoun would like his trip, part of a tour that will also take him to Qatar, to result in a lifting of travel advisories imposed by some Gulf states last year on nationals visiting Lebanon, which severely damaged its tourism sector.
Lebanon is caught up in regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh appeared to disengage from Lebanon over the past year as it became increasingly occupied with struggles against Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain.
In each case, the two rivals back opposing sides.
In February, Riyadh cancelled a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army and also advised big-spending Saudis not to visit Lebanon, which relies heavily on tourism.
This coincided with a financial crisis at the Saudi Oger construction firm belonging to the Hariri family, Saudi Arabia’s main ally in Lebanon.
Tensions also cast a shadow on the fate of an estimated 750,000 Lebanese nationals living and working in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf Arab states, who transfer between $7 and $8 billion each year to support extensive families.
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 “normalize Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states”.
While visiting Beirut in November, Saudi Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca and also a nephew of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, invited Aoun to visit his country. [nL8N1DM3TW]
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, who will meet the Saudi king, will also seek to activate economic, investment, aid and trade cooperation, including the frozen military aid. He said there would be a group meeting of all the ministerial delegation and then bilateral meetings between ministers.
In talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Lebanese delegation will discuss making the issuance of work visas for Lebanese easier.
Aoun was also expected to discuss possible Qatari help to free nine kidnapped Lebanese army soldiers believed to be held by Islamic State militants.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry, and William Maclean; editing by Sami Aboudi/Mark Heinrich