France and Saudi Arabia edge closer to massive arms deal for Lebanon
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On a visit to Paris, the Saudi crown prince is said to have ironed out most obstacles to a multi-billion-euro plan to equip the Lebanese army with French weapons in the face of regional instability, but one final signature is still missing.
Sources with knowledge of the talks told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday that the absence of the finance minister among the group of Saudi officials accompanying Defence Minister and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Paris was the official reason for the delay.
“The tripartite agreement is complete and the list of equipment has been established with the Lebanese army,” said Gérard Bapst, a member of the ruling Socialist parliamentary party, quoting sources in the French presidency. “Only the signature of the finance minister, who is undergoing medical treatment in the US, is missing.”
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and Beirut’s former defence attaché in Paris, confirmed the information. He told FRANCE 24 that weapons deliveries were “very urgent now that the Lebanese army is facing terrorist militias in the Bekaa area”.
In the bloodiest incident to date, Syrian Islamist insurgents attacked the Lebanese town of Arsal one month ago, killing 16 soldiers. Within days, Saudi Arabia donated $1 billion to the Lebanese security forces – a sign that Riyadh deemed emergency assistance necessary while the tripartite deal with France remained stalled.
$3 billion grant
Last December, Riyadh, Beirut and Paris agreed on a plan under which Saudi Arabia would fund $3 billion worth of French weapons to equip the Lebanese military. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman then described it as “the largest grant ever given to the country’s armed forces”.
The two-year plan represents one fifth of France’s average arms exports. The list includes armoured personnel carriers, helicopters with air-to-ground missiles and navy patrol ships.
A meeting of international diplomats rubberstamped the deal in March, among other measures to support Lebanon as the civil war in neighbouring Syria threatened to engulf it. The UN says more than one million Syrian refugees are now in Lebanon and fighting has begun to spill over the border.
“We are expecting a terrorist invasion at any moment and the army’s equipment has severe limitations. Why such delays? We don’t understand,” said retired general Hisham Jaber.
Initial differences on the equipment to be provided are believed to have been solved, with top-rate weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles that would have questioned Israel’s regional air supremacy now off the table.
Commissions for intermediaries
The Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le jour reported last month that Saudi Arabia had refused to pay commissions to intermediaries of French weapons suppliers. The spat seems to have targeted ODAS, a marketing company jointly set up by the French government and arms exporters in 2008, with offices in France and in Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis had to be convinced that ODAS is not just an intermediary, but also organises deliveries,” said Bapst. “The Saudis may also have their own intermediaries,” he added, his comment reflecting the murky web of commissions traditionally attached to the international arms trade.
On Wednesday, the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online offered another explanation, reporting that poor health had delayed Prince Salman’s handling of the deal.
The French authorities and ODAS declined to comment on progress in relation to the deal.
“A Lebanese military delegation is due to travel to France shortly to see what the obstacles are,” Jaber said. “If France wants Lebanon to remain Francophile and Francophone, it should stop wasting time. The Americans and the Russians are making offers to the Lebanese army too,” he warned.
David Rigoulet-Roze, a Middle East expert at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis, told FRANCE 24 that the contract would go through "because there has been a formal commitment by France and Saudi Arabia, and because it is in everybody’s strategic interest”.
Aside from the need to strengthen Lebanon against spillover from the Syrian conflict, he said Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia also had an interest in boosting the Lebanese army because it is “currently seen as under-equipped compared to Hezbollah,” the Lebanese Shiite militia. “Everything in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is overshadowed by its perception of a rising Iranian-led Shiite belt as a threat,” Rigoulet-Roze added.
This has led Riyad to turn a blind eye to – or, some observers say, actively support – the rise of radical islamic militias such as the Islamic State organisation and the al-Nusra Front, which now threaten Lebanon’s stability from Syria.
This – together with Saudi support for Egypt's new strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – is the uncomfortable aspect of an otherwise cosy relationship between Paris and Riyadh. “Since [President] François Hollande’s visit to Riyadh in December 2013, France has emphasised its relations with Saudi Arabia, much like Nicolas Sarkozy had done with Qatar before him,” Rigoulet-Roze said as the Saudi crown prince, several government ministers and business leaders neared the end of a four-day official visit to Paris.
The analyst regards each country as an ideal complementary strategic partner for the other, with Riyadh purchasing French weapons to reduce its dependence on Washington, and Paris hoping for new commercial opportunities in Saudi Arabia – including a role in the development of its upcoming civilian nuclear energy programme.
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