Hollande tackles Middle Eastern crises on Saudi visit


RIYADH: French President Francois Hollande and Saudi King Abdullah on Sunday held talks on escalating tensions in the Middle East, with a focus on Lebanon and Syria, during a visit also aimed at boosting commercial ties.

The monarch highlighted a “convergence” of positions between the two countries on several issues, a member of Hollande’s entourage said.

During the meeting Abdullah “expressed his concern, even anxiety, about regional crises—Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt—and praised France’s courageous position on these key dossiers,” the aide said.

Lebanon was at the top of the agenda amid heightening tensions in Beirut after the assassination of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s close aide, former minister Mohammad Chatah, in a car bomb on Friday.

The two leaders, meeting at the king’s luxurious Rawdat Khurayim farm, 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, both expressed concern over Iranian interference in Lebanon and the region.

Paris and Riyadh share a “will to work for peace, security and stability in the Middle East,” Hollande said in an interview published in Sunday’s Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.

Hollande later met with Hariri, a strong critic of the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.

Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq who was assassinated in a massive car bomb in February 2005, lives outside Lebanon because of security fears.

In a statement, Hariri highlighted “the importance of French support of the Lebanese state . . . in particular the Lebanese army.”

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Hollande pledged to “meet” any requests by the Lebanese government to arm the army.

His comments came as Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman announced from Beirut that Saudi Arabia had pledged $3 billion for the Lebanese army to buy French equipment.

Lebanon’s armed forces are woefully under-equipped and face multiplying security challenges, underlined by the blast that killed Chatah, although officials played down any link with the Saudi aid pledge.



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