Saudi Arabia Lifts Travel Ban to Lebanon

Published February 14th, 2019 - 07:44 GMT
The lifting of the Saudi warning comes two weeks after a new Cabinet was formed in Lebanon. (TheDailyStar)
The lifting of the Saudi warning comes two weeks after a new Cabinet was formed in Lebanon. (TheDailyStar)

Citing an improvement in the country’s security situation, Saudi Arabia has lifted a 15-month-old warning that had advised its citizens against traveling to Lebanon, the kingdom’s ambassador said Wednesday, paving the way for other Gulf countries to follow suit.

The announcement was made by Saudi Ambassador Walid al-Bukhari following a meeting between Saudi royal court envoy Nizar al-Aloula and Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail.

Bukhari, who accompanied Aloula on his meetings with Hariri and other Lebanese leaders, said the decision was made after the kingdom had received assurances over the stable security situation in Lebanon.

“Given the fact that the security reasons that called on Saudi Arabia to warn its citizens against traveling to Lebanon no longer exist, and based on the assurances that the kingdom received from the Lebanese government about the stability of the security situation, and its permanent keenness on the safety of Saudi citizens, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia lifts its warning to its citizens traveling to Lebanon, whether from the kingdom or from any other international country,” Bukhari said in his televised statement.

The Saudi move is expected to be followed by similar decisions by other Arab Gulf states that had issued similar warnings for their citizens in 2017. The lifting of travel the ban on citizens from Arab Gulf states is bound to give a badly needed boost to Lebanon’s weak tourism and flagging economy.

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In November 2017, Saudi Arabia advised its citizens against traveling to Lebanon and those already in the country to leave. Kuwait and Bahrain issued similar advisories.

The advisories came a few days after Hariri announced his shock resignation in a televised address from Riyadh before he later withdrew it. Hariri cited his reasons as Iran’s growing influence in the region and fears of attempts on his life. Saudi Arabia had issued a warning advising its citizens against traveling to Lebanon in September 2016, citing safety concerns.

That warning came after Saudi Arabia halted a $4 billion grant to Lebanon’s Army and security agencies to protest Lebanon’s vote against an Arab League decision to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization” and against suspending Syria’s membership in the Arab League.

However, Lebanon’s soured ties with Arab Gulf states have greatly improved since the election of President Michel Aoun in October 2016. Aoun has visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since his election.

Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting with Hariri, Bukhari said Aloula extended “sincere congratulations” to Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri on the formation of a new Cabinet.

Bukhari also said that preparations for a meeting of a joint Lebanese-Saudi committee would be completed in the coming weeks. He added that the committee would be comprised of “a group of technicians from various Lebanese governmental institutions” and their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, and would “develop bilateral relations between the two countries in an institutional way.” Later at night, Aloula, accompanied by Bukhari and Sidon MP Bahia Hariri, visited former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s graves in Downtown Beirut, where they recited Quranic verses for his soul. Aloula’s visit came on the eve of the 14th anniversary of Hariri’s assassination which will be commemorated by a rally planned by the Future Movement for Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Aloula met with Aoun at Baabda Palace to relay Saudi Arabia’s support for Lebanon, as well as congratulations on behalf of Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for the Cabinet formation. Aloula stressed that “Saudi Arabia stood by Lebanon’s side and will help it in all fields with the aim of strengthening fraternal relations between the brotherly countries,” a statement from the president’s media office said.

Aloula also met with Berri at his office in Parliament during a break for the session on the government’s policy statement.

The Saudi envoy’s visit came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left Beirut after holding talks with top Lebanese leaders on bilateral relations and regional developments. Zarif offered Iran’s military aid to Lebanon, but said the Lebanese government had to show “a desire” to accept it first.

The lifting of the Saudi warning comes two weeks after a new Cabinet was formed in Lebanon, ending an eight-month political deadlock. It also came as Parliament was still debating for the second consecutive day the new government’s policy statement on whose basis the Cabinet would seek a vote of confidence from lawmakers. As the main political parties are represented in the government, it is assured of a vote of confidence with a majority of at least 100 MPs out of Parliament’s 128 members.

Berri Wednesday night adjourned the Parliament session until 3 p.m. Friday as 22 MPs have yet to speak. Berri said he expected the discussion of the government’s policy statement to drag on until Saturday before a vote of confidence is held, the state-run National News Agency reported.

The first day of the parliamentary debate of the policy statement saw the majority of MPs underlining the need to fight corruption.

However, Wednesday’s session was marred by an exchange of accusations between Hezbollah and Kataeb Party lawmakers. The spat began when Kataeb leader MP Sami Gemayel accused Hezbollah of dominating the new government, prompting a harsh response from Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Musawi.

Meanwhile, Hariri defended the Saudi-sponsored 1989 Taif Accord, saying the pact that ended the 1975-90 Civil War and stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians, has become a “model” for many countries to return to civil peace.

“Taif goes beyond the conference sponsored by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that ended the civil war, and beyond the National Accord Document that constituted a new Constitution for Lebanon, to become a model for many countries in the region eager to return to civil peace and security through a political settlement,” Hariri said.

He was speaking at the “Taif Forum: Achievements, Numbers and Partners” organized by the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development in cooperation with the Saudi Embassy at the Seaside Arena for the 14th commemoration of Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Hariri said Aloula’s presence at the event “confirmed the kingdom’s permanent support for Lebanon and the Lebanese.”

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