Relations have been strained since last year after a former minister criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday that it was sending an ambassador to Lebanon for the first time since a row erupted with Beirut last year over Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen.
The Foreign Ministry “announces the return of the Ambassador… to the sister Republic of Lebanon,” read a statement carried by state media.
The ambassador returns in response to calls from “moderate” Lebanese political forces, the Foreign Ministry said, and after Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s remarks regarding “an end to all political, military and security activities” that affect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.
A diplomatic crisis erupted last October after then-information minister George Kordahi criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, where a bitter war has produced what the United Nations describes as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Kordahi, who has since resigned, said in a TV interview that Houthi rebels fighting the internationally recognized Yemeni government were “defending themselves…against external aggression”.
He said “homes, villages, funerals and weddings were bombed” by the Saudi-led coalition, and called the war in Yemen “futile”.
The Houthis are backed by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, which has significant influence in Lebanon, where it backs the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement.
In response to Kordahi’s remarks, Riyadh recalled its ambassador and ordered the Lebanese envoy to leave the kingdom. Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, followed suit, expelling the Lebanese envoys.
Kuwait also announced on Thursday the return of its ambassador to Beirut following the Saudi decision.
The diplomatic row, which also saw Saudi Arabia ban imports of Lebanese products, dealt a blow to a country already in the throes of crippling political and economic crises.
Lebanon, which was counting on financial aid from the Gulf to save its economy, welcomed the Saudi announcement.
Prime Minister Mikati, in a Twitter post welcoming the move, said Lebanon was “proud of its Arab affiliation and has the best relations with the Gulf states”, describing them as pillars of support.
“Concerns” about Hezbollah
Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi also welcomed the decision.
“Once again, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has proven, through the return of its ambassador…that Lebanon is in its heart and conscience and will never abandon it,” Mawlawi said.
“We will continue to work on strengthening the bonds and we will not allow any further harm or offense to come,” he added.
Angered by Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, which wields strong sway over many smaller Gulf states, has distanced itself from its former ally Beirut in recent years.
Riyadh has long accused Tehran of supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons and its Hezbollah proxy of training the armed group – charges Iran denies.
Saudi Arabia said in December it had “evidence of Lebanese terrorist Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen”, including the use of the airport in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, “to target the kingdom”. .
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud had blamed the deterioration of relations with Beirut on Hezbollah and Iran’s dominance over Lebanese politics.
“There is no crisis with Lebanon, but a crisis in Lebanon because of Iranian domination,” he told Al Arabiya television in October.
“Hezbollah’s dominance over the political system in Lebanon worries us,” he said.
Hezbollah backs Tehran in its regional struggle for influence with US-allied Gulf Arab states. The group and its allies also wield major influence over Lebanese state policy.