Aoun in Riyadh to mend Lebanon-Saudi ties
RIYADH - Lebanon's Hezbollah-backed President Michel Aoun landed on Monday in Saudi Arabia, his first trip to the kingdom since taking office after a tense year in Saudi-Lebanese ties.
The official Saudi Press Agency confirmed his arrival in Riyadh.
Aoun's election in November by Lebanese lawmakers ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in parliament.
The Maronite Christian, a former army chief, clinched the post with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after Riyadh's concerns about the role played by Hezbollah in Lebanon's government.
The Iran-allied Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to Assad.
Riyadh last March declared Hezbollah a "terrorist organisation" and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.
In February the kingdom halted a $3 billion programme of military aid to Lebanon to protest what it said was "the stranglehold of Hezbollah on the state".
Syria's five-year war has been a major fault line for Lebanon's politics.
Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and founder of the independent Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, said he expects the stalled military aid to figure in Aoun's talks with Saudi officials.
The programme, funded by Riyadh, would have provided vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannons and other military equipment from France.
"The only way for peace in Lebanon is to support Aoun," the 81-year-old president, Eshki said.
"The main goal of Saudi Arabia is to make Lebanon peaceful and independent," and that includes its army, he said.
Aoun's arrival follows a late-November visit to Beirut by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca who is also an adviser to King Salman.
Prince Khaled's visit showed that "Saudi Arabia did not disengage itself from Lebanon," Tariq Alhomayed, former editor in chief of the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a column for that newspaper.
By meeting Aoun, Hariri and other government officials -- rather than party leaders -- Prince Khaled sent a message of support for the Lebanese state, Alhomayed wrote.
Tens of thousands of foreign workers at Saudi Oger, a construction firm led by Hariri, have gone months without salaries in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government says it will pay early this year the arrears it owes to private firms, chiefly in the construction sector, as a result of collapsed oil revenues.