By AYA BATRAWY and SARAH EL DEEB
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — France’s president and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince held a joint phone call with Lebanon’s prime minister during Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the kingdom on Saturday, in a significant gesture amid an unprecedented crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
During the calls with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, 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.
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 to protest their frustration with Iran-backed Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanese politics. Riyadh also banned imports from Lebanon.
The Lebanese information minister whose comments sparked the crisis resigned Friday, paving the way for the French leader to start dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Minister George Kordahi had criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. 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. Hezbollah has demanded the lead judge in the investigation be removed.
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.”
“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,” Macron told reporters in remarks before departing the kingdom.
“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 Mikati, who took office in September, and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a traditional ally of Lebanon. Mikati said the call with the French and Saudi leaders “is an important step” toward restoring historic relations with Riyadh.
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 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.
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 the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
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.”
Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the final step in a two-day tour of three Gulf states. Concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the multiple crises in Lebanon and the ongoing war in Yemen were aired in the meetings.
Earlier in the day, 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 chargés 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’s the latest push by the young crown prince to showcase the social reforms he’s 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.
Throughout his visit to the Gulf, Macron’s meetings also focused on the revived talks regarding Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, of which France is a party to. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have signaled the 2015 nuclear agreement — with minor tweaks — is the way forward with Iran. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had opposed the negotiated deal with Iran, though both have since held talks with Tehran to cool tensions.
During Macron’s visit to the UAE on Friday, France announced the UAE is buying 80 upgraded Rafale warplanes in a deal worth 16 billion euros ($18 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.
El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Masha Macpherson and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.
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