Emmanuel Macron brokered a call on Saturday between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s leaders in a bid to end a diplomatic dispute that led to the imposition of sanctions on Beirut by gulf states.
The French president, the first western leader to visit the kingdom since the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pushed for the call during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, during a tour intended to underline France’s influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and expelled the Lebanese envoy in October after Lebanon’s information minister George Kordahi criticised the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It also banned imports from Lebanon, which is enduring its worst economic crisis in decades. Other Gulf countries followed suit.
Macron said an important step had been taken with Saudi Arabia prepared to re-engage financially with Lebanon after a first round of three-way talks.
“We worked together on Lebanon and we then called [Lebanese] prime minister Mikati together to pass on the clear message from Saudi Arabia and France that we fully want to engage,” Macron told reporters in Jeddah.
“We want to engage so we can help the people of Lebanon and do everything so that an economic and commercial opening can happen.”
Although sparked by Kordahi’s comments, the root of the Gulf states’ dispute is the influence of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, despite billions in Saudi Arabian financial aid to Beirut over recent decades.
Kordahi said on Friday that he would resign following a French request.
French officials said Saudi Arabia had agreed to send its ambassador back to Beirut, but it was not clear they would do so
A French proposal to have Lebanese caretaker prime minister Najib Miqati visit Jeddah for a trilateral meeting with Macron and Prince Mohammed was rejected.
A joint Saudi-French statement said they agreed a “joint-mechanism” for transparent humanitarian aid to Lebanon, as well as the need to restrict weapons to legitimate state institutions, a veiled reference to Hizbollah.
Western leaders have shunned visits to Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The CIA concluded Prince Mohammed must have authorised the operation. He has denied any involvement with Riyadh blaming the killing on a rogue operation.
Macron brushed aside criticism of his visit. “Who really thinks for a second that we can help Lebanon, that we can try and preserve the stability that we’re working towards in the Middle East, if we say ‘we’re not talking to Saudi Arabia any more’”, he said in Dubai on Friday.
Macron said France, the former colonial power in Lebanon, had a role to play in the discussions. “It doesn’t mean we approve or that we forget,” he said. “It does not mean we’re not demanding partners.”
A French official said Saudi Arabia’s agreement to re-engage with Lebanon was a quid pro quo for the high profile visit by a western leader.
A regional official said France had escalated pressure over the past few weeks. “With upcoming French elections, it’s important for him to make progress on this file,” the official said.
Macron is being accompanied by a business delegation. In Dubai he announced a $19bn sale of Rafale fighter jets and helicopters.
In Jeddah, the state-owned-Saudi Arabian Military Industries announced joint ventures with French companies Airbus and Figeac Aéro.
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