February 13, 2019 / 4:20 PM / 5 months ago

Saudi Arabia 'to lift' Lebanon travel warning, marking warmer ties

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is lifting its longstanding warning against citizens travelling to Lebanon, its ambassador to Beirut said on Wednesday, marking a new warmth in a once-close relationship that has cooled in recent years.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-HarirI is seen at a meeting in the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon, February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

Riyadh was once a major supporter of both the Lebanese state and political allies in Beirut, but mindful of its overarching rivalry with Iran, it stepped back as Tehran’s own Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, grew in strength.

“Given that the previous security reasons have ended and based on reassurances from the Lebanese government to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia then is lifting its travel warning for its citizens,” Ambassador Waleed Bukhari said on al-Jadeed TV.

The heightened engagement appears to mark a shift away from an approach characterised by pressuring the Lebanese government over Hezbollah’s political power in Lebanon.

Lebanon last week formed a new coalition that includes three ministers chosen by Hezbollah while still being led by the Western-backed Saad al-Hariri, historically a Saudi ally, after months of political wrangling.

Riyadh has repeatedly warned against travel to Lebanon since January 2011, citing Hezbollah’s power and the political instability resulting from the war in neighbouring Syria.

A fall in visitors from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies has hit Lebanon’s tourism industry, once a mainstay of an economy that Hariri’s new government has pledged to support with reforms and investment.

Saudi ties with Lebanon hit a nadir in November 2017, when Hariri was briefly detained during a visit to Riyadh and announced his resignation, though the crisis was resolved and he returned to Beirut soon afterwards.

At an anniversary event on Wednesday evening marking the 2005 assassination of Saad’s Riyadh-backed father Rafik al-Hariri, who was also Lebanon’s prime minister, the Saudi presence was clear.

The Saudi flag was on display and the visiting Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula, who earlier met both Hariri and President Michel Aoun, gave a speech.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Beirut earlier this week, holding meetings with Hariri, Aoun and other political leaders.

Reporting by Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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