French military supplies redirected to Saudi Arabia
LONDON - Saudi Arabia is to keep billions of dollars of military equipment it is buying from France after cancelling a deal to give the weaponry as aid to the Lebanese military over fears it could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
Media in Lebanon had speculated that the grant was cancelled due to economic issues — low crude oil prices and its participation in two regional wars — afflicting Saudi Arabia but, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, at a news conference in Paris, insisted: “We didn’t stop the contract. It’s just going to Saudi Arabia, not to Hezbollah.”
“We have a situation where Lebanon’s decisions have been hijacked by Hezbollah,” Jubeir said. “The contracts will be completed but the clients will be the Saudi military.”
Saudi Arabia in February cancelled the grant, called the Donas military aid programme, over the Lebanese government’s failure to condemn attacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran. This was followed by travel bans by the kingdom. All Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have officially designated the Hezbollah militia as a terrorist organisation.
The French government attempted to unblock the deal, with a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry saying that the objective of the Donas programme was to contribute to “equipping Lebanon’s national armed forces in order to allow them to protect the country in complete independence. We are pursuing our dialogue with the Saudi and Lebanese authorities to reach this objective.”
The military aid programme had been plagued with delays and speculation since it was announced in December 2013. The aid package would have been the biggest in Lebanese history and was three times larger than the annual Lebanese defence budget.
The grant involved a four-year, $3 billion Saudi pledge to buy French arms for the Lebanese military and a $1 billion support deal for the Lebanese police. Some weaponry was delivered in April 2015, a shipment to the Lebanese military that included 48 anti-tank Milan missiles. That delivery was made after the Saudis paid $450 million to France.
Also to have been included in the deal were 250 combat and transport vehicles, seven Cougar helicopters, three Corvette warships and a range of surveillance and communications equipment, plus training and maintenance services.
Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Bloomberg News that Saudi Arabia is unable to ensure that the French weapons would not fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
“Since Hezbollah, their staunch enemy, has the upper hand in Lebanon’s decision-making system, the Saudis are not sure where the money is going and who will be controlling it,” Nader said.
The Iran-supported Hezbollah is backing President Bashar Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, while Saudi Arabia supports Sunni rebels. However, both sides are also fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
In an unrelated development, France presented the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest award, to Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
French President François Hollande bestowed the honour on the crown prince for his “efforts in the fight against terrorism and extremism”. The crown prince led a successful crackdown on al-Qaeda militants in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2007.
France has sold billions of dollars in weaponry to Riyadh and sees Saudi Arabia as crucial to intelligence sharing about jihadist groups.