Macron, Saudi's MBS call for end to 'political vacuum' in Lebanon

AFP , Saturday 17 Jun 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for a "rapid end to the institutional political vacuum in Lebanon", the Elysee said on Friday.

Bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron, Friday, June 16, 2023 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. AP


It came after Macron hosted Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince for talks in Paris, where he had been expected to seek support from MBS, as he is widely known, to find a solution to Lebanon's leadership crisis.

Lebanese lawmakers on Wednesday failed for a 12th time to elect a new president, as bitter divisions between Hezbollah and its opponents risk miring the country in a protracted power vacuum.

Crisis-hit Lebanon has already been without a head of state for more than seven months, and the previous attempt to elect a president was held on January 19.

The vote for the presidency, reserved for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's delicate sectarian power-sharing system, pitted Sleiman Frangieh, the scion of a political family, against Jihad Azour, a former finance minister and senior official with the International Monetary Fund.

But neither had enough support to get the required two-thirds majority, with Azour garnering 59 votes and Frangieh 51.

All 128 lawmakers showed up for the election, but many left the chamber after placing their ballots in the box and quorum was lost before a second round of voting -- where the winner only requires 65 ballots -- was able to go ahead.

The prolonged absence of a president "remains the major obstacle to resolving the country's severe socio-economic crisis", the French presidency said.

The pair also discussed the war in Ukraine. Macron expressed his "profound concern in the face of Russia's war of aggression... its disastrous impact on the civilian populations and its repercussions on food security", his office said.

Macron and MBS "also reiterated their shared commitment to security and stability in the Near and Middle East and expressed their desire to pursue their joint efforts to bring about a lasting easing of tensions".

They intended to "develop and deepen the partnership between the two countries", said the Elysee.

France was also prepared "to support Saudi Arabia in strengthening its defence capabilities", the statement said.

Cautious on Ukraine

The 37-year-old crown prince's trip came less than a year after his last visit to the Elysee Palace and underlines the warm relationship between Paris and Riyadh that has irked rights activists in the wake of the 2018 killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

His stay in France appears set to be a long one, with MBS due to attend a Paris summit on a New Global Financing Pact hosted by Macron on June 22-23.

On Monday, he will also attend an official Saudi reception for Riyadh's candidacy to host Expo 2030, a bid for which Saudi Arabia wants strong French support.

Marcon's entourage had made it clear he would try to persuade his guest to take a stand on Ukraine.

But Saudi Arabia has maintained a cautious stance, stopping short of condemning the assault while emphasising the importance of Kyiv's territorial integrity.

MBS hosted President Volodymyr Zelensky last month in Jeddah during an Arab League summit, the Ukrainian leader's first visit to the Middle East since the invasion began.

But Saudi Arabia also retains close ties with Russia, particularly through Moscow's involvement in the expanded OPEC+ format of the oil cartel that includes 10 non-OPEC members.

In Russia, UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, known as MBZ and a close political ally of MBS who has had a similar stance on Ukraine, was holding talks with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an economic forum in Saint Petersburg.

Macron last month named his former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as his personal envoy for Lebanon in a new bid to end the political crisis. The veteran politician is due to visit soon.

Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran are also in the throes of an unexpected rapprochement -- brokered by Beijing -- that has caused huge interest among Western governments still seeking to revive a 2015 deal on the Iranian nuclear programme.

"In Saudi Arabia's normalisation with Iran, there is potential for easing tensions in the region," said the French official, expressing hope it could also smooth the path to an election of a Lebanese president.

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