JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Saudi King Salman called on Lebanon Wednesday to elect a president as soon as possible and overcome differences to protect the country from regional turmoil, during talks with a Lebanese delegation headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri, who attended the meeting, said the king told his Lebanese guests it was important for the Lebanese to do their best to elect a president as soon as possible.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Asiri described the meeting as “fruitful” and said the whole visit was “useful.”
“King Salman emphasized clearly and loudly cohesive efforts to protect Lebanon from the repercussions of regional events,” Asiri said.
He added that the king called upon all political parties to unite for the interest of Lebanon and to overcome their differences in order to protect the country from regional turmoil, namely the conflict in Syria.
Salman’s comments are a veiled sign that Riyadh approved ongoing dialogue between rivals Hezbollah and the Future Movement, sources close to the meeting said.
The Saudi leader was very “explicit” in his support of Lebanon’s stability and went into the details of the Lebanese-Saudi ties in the past few decades, they added.
Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that Salman mentioned Hezbollah four times during the meeting with the Lebanese delegation, saying the party has nothing to do with fighting in Syria and should go back to fighting Israel.
Other ministerial sources said the Saudi monarch indicated that Lebanon was always a priority for the kingdom, describing Speaker Nabih Berri as wise and enlightened.
The Saudi Press Agency said that Salman and the Lebanese delegation also discussed means to boost bilateral relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and touched on developments on the regional and international levels.
The statement said Salam highly appreciated Salman’s interest in improving Saudi-Lebanese ties and Saudi Arabia’s continuous support for Lebanon and its people under various circumstances.Attending the talks were Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef and several senior Saudi officials.
On the Lebanese side, Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, Youth and Sports Minister Abdel Motaleb Al-Hennawi and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil participated in the meeting.
A statement by Salam’s press office said Salman highlighted his keenness to maintain Lebanon’s unity, sovereignty, stability and the welfare of its people.
The king considered that Lebanon, with its diverse and vibrant society, constituted a source of wealth for its Arab brothers.
Salman said he was eager to strengthen the Lebanese state and its legitimate institutions, praising Lebanese nationals in Saudi Arabia for their activities and vitality, which he said were contributing to the kingdom’s development.
The king also said verbal attacks by some Lebanese groups against Saudi Arabia would not affect “brotherly and strong ties” between the two states.
Hezbollah has launched an unprecedented fierce tirade against Saudi Arabia over its military operation targeting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen which began in March.
Salam also thanked the king for a $3-billion Saudi grant provided to the Lebanese Army along with another $1-billion gift for all Lebanese security services.
Salam and the Saudi king then held a closed-door meeting.
Also during his visit, Salam discussed Saudi-funded projects in Lebanon with Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf.
Assaf promised that his country would do whatever was necessary to remove obstacles blocking the implementation of a $1 billion loan that the kingdom pledged to Lebanon at the Paris III donor conference in 2007.
Asiri said the purpose of Salam’s two-day official visit was to “bolster” and “institutionalize” Lebanese-Saudi relations. “It’s high time Lebanese-Saudi ties become more efficient and more tangible,” he said, adding that the ties must endure regardless of changes in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon. “It’s time for a more practical and progressive approach that is anchored in the institutions.”
Asked whether there was a possibility of a thaw in ties between Riyadh and Hezbollah, the ambassador said this might happen once Hezbollah starts working for the welfare and interests of Lebanon. “But Hezbollah’s behavior [so far] doesn’t make me optimistic.”
Before leaving for Beirut, Salam assured members of the Lebanese community in Saudi Arabia that their interests would not be harmed by verbal attacks made by some Lebanese groups against the kingdom.
“King Salman told me that Saudi Arabia does not pay attention to talk against it and it is careful to maintain excellent ties with Lebanon,” Salam said in a speech he delivered at the inauguration of the new premises of the Lebanese Consulate in Jeddah.
“You have a special place in the heart of King Salman and the leadership of Saudi Arabia ... Saudi Arabia has nothing against you,” Salam said.
The premier also said Lebanon’s presidential deadlock would eventually come to an end. “Despite all the problems and reports about divergences we will overcome difficulties. I will not let go of Lebanon because I am the servant of Lebanon and the Lebanese and we will elect a consensus president.”