French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as "MBS," called for a "rapid end to the institutional political vacuum in Lebanon," Élysée Palace said Friday.
The statement came after Macron hosted Saudi Arabia's de facto leader for talks in Paris, where he had been expected to seek support from MBS to find a solution to Lebanon's leadership crisis.
Lebanese lawmakers on Wednesday failed for a twelfth time to elect a new president, as bitter divisions between Iran-backed Hezbollah and its opponents risk miring the country in a protracted power vacuum.
The prolonged absence of a president "remains the major obstacle to resolving the country's severe socio-economic crisis," the French presidency said.
Macron reportedly informed bin Salman that he told Iran that Hezbollah needs to "soften its stance to allow the arrival of a new president," according to a diplomatic source at the Élysée Palace.
Hezbollah supports the presidential candidacy of Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh in the election that has been stalled for months. According to the diplomatic source, two world leaders agreed that "the Iranian-Saudi detente should benefit" Lebanon.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, Macron's new special envoy for Lebanon, was not present at the meeting.
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 Élysée Palace.
France was also prepared "to support Saudi Arabia in strengthening its defense 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 Élysée Palace and underlines the warm relationship between Paris and Riyadh that has irked rights activists in the wake of the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist 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 emphasizing 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 program.
"In Saudi Arabia's normalization 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.
Shadow of Khashoggi killing
Despite championing rapid economic and political reform, a shadow remains cast over the prince by the case of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered inside Riyadh's Istanbul consulate in 2018.
It was described by a UN probe as an "extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible."
US intelligence agencies determined that MBS had "approved" the operation that led to Khashoggi's death. Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.
"Shaking hands, acting as if nothing has happened, with a leader whose responsibility in the barbaric assassination of a journalist has been demonstrated is regrettable," Ahmed Benchemsi from Human Rights Watch told AFP.
Amnesty International had meanwhile urged Macron to pressure MBS to spare seven young men facing execution in Saudi Arabia for crimes committed while minors.
Amnesty's secretary general Agnes Callamard told AFP that MBS' visit to Paris left a "very bitter taste" and Macron "must intervene" to save the lives of the men.
"[Macron] is the main architect of the re-legitimization of the Saudi prince since 2018 and the murder of Khashoggi," she said.
Reporting contributed by Elie Masboungi, president of the Association de presse étrangère (APE) in France
The statement came after Macron hosted Saudi Arabia's de facto leader for talks in Paris, where he had been expected to seek support from MBS to...