x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

$3bn Saudi boost for Lebanese military

Saudi Arabia pledges $3 billion for the Lebanese army to buy military equipment in the largest aid package in Lebanon's history.

BEIRUT // Saudi Arabia yesterday pledged $3 billion (Dh11bn) for the Lebanese army to buy military equipment from France.

It is the largest aid package in Lebanon’s history, said the president, Michel Sleiman.

The French president Francois Hollande, in Riyadh for talks with King Abdullah, said: “If requests are addressed to us, we will meet them.”

The military aid comes amid mounting sectarian tension in Lebanon over the war in Syria, where Iranian-backed Hizbollah Shiite militia are fighting beside Assad regime forces against rebels whom Saudi Arabia and many Lebanese Sunnis support.

Inside Lebanon the armed forces are woefully under-equipped compared with Hizbollah, the country’s best-armed and trained organisation.

Mr Sleiman, who made the surprise announcement in a televised national address, said French President Francois Hollande was to discuss the matter during his visit Sunday to Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudi king decided to give a generous, well-appreciated grant to Lebanon amounting to $3 billion for the Lebanese army, which will allow it to buy new and modern weapons,” Mr Sleiman said. “The king pointed out that the weapons will be bought from France quickly, considering the historical relations that tie it to Lebanon and the military cooperation between the two countries.”

Mr Sleiman said that he hopes Paris will quickly meet the initiative, and help the Lebanese army with arms, training and maintenance.

Fabrice Hermel, a spokesman for the French president, said he did not yet have details.

Fragile in the best of times, Lebanon is struggling to cope with the fallout from Syria’s civil war. That conflict has deeply divided Lebanon along sectarian lines, and paralysed the country’s political system to the point that it has been stuck with a caretaker government since April.

It has also seen a wave of deadly bombings and shootings that have fuelled fears that Lebanon, which suffered a brutal 15-year civil war of its own that only ended in 1990, could be slowly slipping back toward full-blown sectarian conflict.

In a nod to those concerns, Mr Sleiman said in his address that “Lebanon is threatened by sectarian conflict and extremism,” and said that strengthening the army was a popular demand.

The Lebanese army is generally seen as a unifying force in the country, and draws its ranks from all of Lebanon’s sects. But it has struggled to contain the escalating violence in the country since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. The Saudi pledge appeared aimed, at least in part, at countering Hizbollah’s superior firepower.

Historically, the Lebanese army has been equipped by the United States and France.

Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid in recent years to Lebanon that has included armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and training for the Lebanese army. The US said the programme aimed to strengthen Lebanese government institutions.

Meanwhile Israel fired a barrage of shells into southern Lebanon on Sunday after five Katyusha-style rockets were launched into Israel on Sunday.

The attacks struck uninhabited areas of both countries without causing any casualties or damage.

Lebanon is particularly on edge after a car bombing in Beirut that killed Mohammed Chatah, 62, a prominent politician and critic of the Syrian regime. There was heavy security at his funeral yesterday. Mourners chanted slogans against Hizbollah, whom they accuse of his assassination.

* The National staff and agencies