Lebanese President Michel Sleiman on Monday urged Saudi entrepreneurs to invest in his country during his first visit to oil-rich Saudi Arabia since his election in May. Addressing business leaders at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sleiman urged them to "boost their investments" in Lebanon, which offers "guarantees and facilities" for investors, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. Lebanon has formed a committee to assess the losses incurred by Saudi investors during the political crisis his country went through in the past few years, Sleiman said, thanking Saudi Arabia for what he described as its constant support for Lebanon.  Sleiman, a former commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, was elected president in May after Lebanon’s rival political factions struck an Arab-brokered deal in the Qatari capital, Doha, to end an 18-month political crisis that had brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The president of the Saudi-Lebanese Business Council, Abdel-Mohsen al-Hakir, was quoted by SPA as saying that "many Saudi investments will start flowing back to the Lebanese market."  Saudi investments in Lebanon are estimated at nearly 5 billion riyals ($1.3 billion) and are expected to increase, Hakir said.  Sleiman told the businessmen that the end of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic worlds was not far away.  The president also described media attacks against Saudi Arabia as a blow to Arabism.  "Any Lebanese individual who attacks any of his Arab brothers in the media, particularly Saudi Arabia, is moving away from his Arabism," he said.  Before heading to Tehran on Sunday, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun said on Saturday that some Lebanese Christians were being swayed by Saudi petrodollars.

Saudi Arabia is a main financial backer of Lebanon, and Saudi King Abdullah reportedly told Sleiman that it was not true that the kingdom supports only one camp in this country.  "I hear that we are accused of being with some people and against others … We are with all sides, and we do not pursue any private interests" in Lebanon, Abdullah told Sleiman, according to a Lebanese official.  The official, who requested anonymity, said the Saudi monarch made his remarks when he met Sleiman Sunday after the Lebanese leader arrived in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.  "Lebanon must be respected; all countries must respect Lebanon," Abdullah said, stressing that Saudi Arabia was prepared to "help Lebanon in whatever it demands," according to the official.

Some members of Lebanon’s opposition, which is backed by Damascus and Tehran, accuse Riyadh of funding Sunni fundamentalist groups in Lebanon.

For its part, the parliamentary majority is close to Saudi Arabia and accuses Syria of seeking to restore its grip on Lebanon, from which it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005.

Relations between Riyadh and Damascus have been tense since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally, in a bombing widely blamed on Syria. Syria has denied any role in the assassination.

Addressing the Saudi king, Sleiman praised Riyadh for the role it played in sponsoring the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War.

"We need not to go far back in history to see that Saudi Arabia had always stood by Lebanon … We can start with the Saudi-sponsored Taif Accord, which established peace among the Lebanese," Sleiman said, adding that Saudi aid to Lebanon had exceeded all expectations.

"I would like to speak about the Saudi military aid to the Lebanese Army during the Nahr al-Bared battles last year," he said, referring to the conflict between with the Fatah al-Islam militant group in the Northern Palestinian refugee camp.

"We will not forget your famous saying: ‘Letting down Lebanon equals letting down oneself,’" Sleiman told Abdullah.

The president also said the upcoming stage in Lebanon was one of reconciliation and dialogue, adding that the country needed help to solve the issue of Palestinian refugees.

"We must work on emphasizing the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland," he said.

The bilateral talks on Sunday ended with the Saudi monarch awarding Sleiman a medal reserved for world leaders.

On the second day of his visit, Sleiman met Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

The president held talks with Faisal in the presence of Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi, Lebanese Ambassador Marwan Zein, and Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja.

The Saudi foreign minister told reporters ahead of the meeting that differences over Lebanon were behind some of the kingdom’s problems with foreign parties. "If Lebanon is in peace, the kingdom will be at peace with everybody," he said.

During his talks with Faisal, Sleiman proposed establishing a watchdog entity with the aim of countering terrorism in many Arab and Islamic countries.

Sleiman returned to Beirut in the evening amid preparations for a meeting between Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh.

The meeting, which would be attended by Aoun and held under Sleiman’s auspices, is aimed at reconciling the country’s rival Christian leaders.

In a related development, Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad said late Sunday that a meeting between Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was likely to take place soon.

Asked to comment on Aoun’s recent criticism of Saudi Arabia, Raad said Hizbullah was against attacking the kingdom or any other Arab state. "Aoun is our ally, but this does not commit us to all that he says," the MP said.

Raad added that a meeting between a Hizbullah delegation and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt was also in the offing. – AFP, with The Daily Star