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Tue 22 Nov 2016 09:39 AM

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Lebanon keen to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, says President Aoun

Lebanon's prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri said his efforts to form a new government faced "stumbling blocks",

Lebanon keen to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, says President Aoun
Lebanese President Michel Aoun. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon is keen to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, a statement from the office of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun said on Monday.

Aoun is a close ally of the powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah which is backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled al-Faisal, on an official visit to Lebanon, invited Aoun on Monday to visit his country.

Al Faisal, governor of Mecca and an adviser to the king, said during an official visit to Lebanon that Aoun had promised to visit as soon as a new Lebanese government was formed.

Lebanon is caught up in regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh has appeared to disengage from Lebanon over the past year as it became increasingly occupied with struggles against Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain.

In each case, the two rivals back opposing sides.

In February, Riyadh cancelled a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army and also advised big-spending Saudis not to visit Lebanon, which relies heavily on tourism.

This coincided with a financial crisis at the Saudi Oger construction firm belonging to the Hariri family, Saudi Arabia's main ally in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri said on Monday his efforts to form a new government faced "stumbling blocks", testing hopes he could quickly steer the country out of its political crisis.

Hariri was named prime minister more than two weeks ago in a political deal that saw former army commander Michel Aoun, an ally of the powerful Iran-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah, fill the presidency, which had been vacant for 2-1/2 years due to political divisions.

Optimistic statements from rival politicians had given rise to hopes that the new cabinet would be in office in time for Lebanese independence day, which falls on Tuesday.

But casting doubt on how quickly the government would be formed, Hariri said "there are some stumbling blocks" after meeting Aoun on Monday. "There is someone complicating matters," he said, without saying who.

Tensions have arisen among rival leaders over portfolio distribution, the number of ministries in the new cabinet, and a contentious electoral law which needs to be passed for a parliamentary election to be held in 2017.

Lebanon urgently needs effective government to address long-pending economic and development issues such as improving infrastructure, organising refuse disposal and tapping offshore oil and gas reserves.

Political tensions have paralysed decision-making and raised fears for Lebanon's stability. The country has not had a parliamentary election since 2009.

These tensions have been exacerbated by war in neighbouring Syria, where Iran is a political and military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and where Saudi Arabia funds opposition political and rebel groups.

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