French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Saturday a Saudi-French initiative to solve a diplomatic row between several Gulf states and Lebanon.
Macron, who was in Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the final leg of a two-day Gulf tour, said Riyadh had committed to supporting reforms in Lebanon, helping it solve its crisis and preserving its sovereignty.
In October, Riyadh expelled Lebanon's envoy to the kingdom, recalled its ambassador to Beirut and banned Lebanese imports after former Lebanese information minister George Kordahi made critical remarks about Saudi Arabia's role in the Yemen war.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took similar steps against Lebanon following the Saudi move.
Kordahi resigned on Friday ahead of Macron's visit in an effort to ease the rift, saying he was acting in his country's interest to help end the dispute.
“I think that this resignation has made it possible to relaunch the possibility of discussions, especially with Saudi Arabia," Macron told reporters in Qatar. “The first objective must be that the Lebanese government can function normally, that is to say, meet, work and move forward on indispensable reforms.”
Macron said he and bin Salman had called Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to stress that Paris and Riyadh were committed to supporting Lebanon, Saudi TV network Asharq reported.
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Mikati said the call was "an important step" towards restoring relations with the Gulf. The Lebanese cabinet said in a statement on Facebook that Mikati stressed his government's commitment to make reforms.
In a joint statement issued Saturday, Saudi Arabia and France said that the Lebanese government must implement comprehensive reforms in the fields of finance, energy, anti-corruption and border control, the Saudi state news agency (SPA) reported.
Riyadh and Paris also agreed to establish a common humanitarian mechanism to alleviate the suffering of the Lebanese, the statement added.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran have long battled for influence in the region, including in Lebanon, which is struggling with a deep economic crisis and desperately needs financial support from regional and international donors.
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.
Hours before arriving in Jiddah, Macron said it is “absolutely necessary” that the region reopens economic relations and helps Lebanon during its time of need. He also said he discussed this with Qatar's ruling emir.
Earlier in the day, Macron was in Qatar, where he told reporters that France and a number of European nations were considering opening a joint diplomatic mission in Afghanistan but stressed it would not mean recognition of the country's Taliban rulers.
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.