French president uses Saudi trip to ease tension with Lebanon

4 December 2021, 19:14

The Crown Prince meets the French president
Saudi Arabia France. Picture: PA

Lebanon’s information minister has resigned after comments criticising the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

France’s president and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince have held a joint phone call with Lebanon’s prime minister during Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the kingdom.

The call was a significant gesture amid an unprecedented crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

During the calls with Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, Mr Macron said France and Saudi Arabia expressed their commitment to Lebanon, despite Saudi Arabia’s uneasiness with Iran’s sway over the small Mediterranean country.

Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Mr Macron did not, however, say whether punitive measures targeting Lebanon by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations will be revoked.

The kingdom withdrew its ambassador from Lebanon last month, with several Gulf states taking similar action in protest over their frustration with Iran-backed Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanese politics.

Riyadh also banned imports from Lebanon.

The Lebanese information minister George Kordahi, whose comments sparked the crisis, resigned on Friday, paving the way for the French leader to start dialogue with Saudi Arabia.

Mr Kordahi had criticised the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Mr Kordahi, backed by Hezbollah, had refused to resign for weeks, prolonging the crisis that affected hundreds of Lebanese businesses.

Hezbollah has been blamed for the recent paralysis that has plagued the Lebanese government following the group’s disapproval over the course of the investigation into a deadly blast at Beirut’s main port last year.

The meeting takes place
The meeting was aimed at smoothing over a row with Lebanon over the war in Yemen (Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Hezbollah has demanded the lead judge in the investigation be removed.

Mr Macron said during the call that he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman relayed “a clear message Saudi Arabia and France want to be fully committed”.

In remarks before departing the kingdom, Mr Macron said: “We want to commit ourselves to supporting the Lebanese people and therefore do everything possible to ensure that trade and economic reopening can take place.

“We also want the (Lebanese) government to be able to work in a normal way and therefore to meet as soon as possible, and to carry out useful reforms,” he added.

It was the first call between Mr Mikati, who took office in September, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a traditional ally of Lebanon.

Mr Mikati said the call with the French and Saudi leaders “is an important step” toward restoring historic relations with Riyadh.

Emmanuel Macron and Mohammed bin Salman
The Saudi crown prince’s reputation has been damaged by the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

The French president indicated that France and Saudi Arabia will work together to offer essential, humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, which is facing an unprecedented slew of economic crises brought on by failures in government and pervasive corruption.

It marked another intervention by Mr Macron to try and aid Lebanon, a nation that was once a French protectorate. It also marked the first call between the Saudi crown prince and Lebanon’s prime minister since Najib Mikati took office in September.

Mr Macron, 43, has consistently kept a line of communication open with the 36-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, including during times of international controversy.

Most notably, the French president’s intervention was seen as key in 2017 in assisting Lebanon’s then-prime minister Saad Hariri to leave Saudi Arabia after allegedly being compelled to resign from his post during a visit to Riyadh.

Emmanuel Macron
Mr Macron has visited the region over the past two days (AP)

He acknowledged that relationship with the kingdom, saying that a large part of the future of the Gulf region is playing out in Saudi Arabia with its overwhelmingly youthful population in a country of over 30 million people.

He noted Saudi Arabia’s demographic, economic, historical and religious weight, saying for these reasons “dialogue with Saudi Arabia is a necessity”.

Mr Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the final step in a two-day tour of three Gulf states. Concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, the multiple crises in Lebanon and the ongoing war in Yemen were aired in the meetings.

Earlier in the day, Mr Macron was in Qatar, where he praised the tiny Gulf state’s role in assisting with evacuation efforts of European citizens out of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country over the summer.

He said France and other EU countries are thinking about “having a common site to several European countries where our ambassadors or charges d’affaires can be present” in Afghanistan.

He stressed this would not signal political recognition or political dialogue with the Taliban.

In Saudi Arabia, Macron met the crown prince in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, where the kingdom is in the midst of hosting its first ever Formula One race and a pop concert by Justin Bieber, despite calls by rights groups for a boycott.

It is the latest push by the young crown prince to showcase the social reforms he has ushered in and been hailed for.

Simultaneously, though, the prince has also spearheaded a pervasive crackdown on human rights activists and critics, culminating in the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018 in Turkey, an operation that stained the prince’s reputation abroad.

During Mr Macron’s visit to the UAE on Friday, France announced the UAE is buying 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes in a deal worth 16 billion euro (£13.6 billion) that represents the largest-ever French weapons contract for export.

The deal faced criticism by human rights groups concerned about the UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen.

By Press Association

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