US, French ambassadors to Beirut in rare joint Saudi visit

BEIRUT (AP) — The French and U.S. ambassadors to Beirut held talks Thursday with Saudi officials in Riyadh, a rare joint visit aimed at finding a unified strategy to help Lebanon out of its unprecedented economic and political crises.

Their embassies tweeted that the “important trilateral consultations” aimed to find ways how they can together “support the Lebanese people and stabilize the economy.”

Lebanon’s political leaders are deeply divided over the formation of a new government to handle the crises, unfolding since 2019 and the most critical threat to the country’s stability since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for the past 30 years, is in free fall, hitting new lows on the black market Thursday, trading at 18,000 pounds to the dollar — more than 10 times the official rate.

The import-dependent Lebanon is struggling to provide basic needs, including fuel, because of the foreign currency crunch. Unemployment and poverty are soaring. Still, political leaders are unable to agree on a new government needed to start talks with the International Monetary Fund for a recovery package.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for 11 months, after caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of a massive and deadly explosion in Beirut Port that only worsened the country’s woes.

Saudi Arabia has been staying out of Lebanese politics as its influence waned in the face of the rising power of its regional rival, Iran. Lebanon’s Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group has gained more power over the past decade. The U.S., the European Union and Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, consider Hezbollah or its military wing a terrorist organization and have imposed sanctions on its officials and institutions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with French and Saudi counterparts in Italy on the sidelines of the Group 20 meeting last month. Blinken said at the time they discussed Lebanon’s crisis and called on Lebanese politicians to show “real leadership.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday that a Lebanese government needs to be cohesive and responsive to the Lebanese people and put the public interests first. Price also said fundamental reforms are needed to rescue the Lebanese economy.

“Corruption, impunity, lawlessness have dogged successive governments and ultimately and most importantly, have drained the Lebanese people of much needed resources,” Price said.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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