- Also axed is $1 billion destined for Lebanese police force
- Decision seen linked to Hezbollah's support for Syria's Assad
Saudi Arabia scrapped $3 billion in pledged military aid to Lebanon, blaming the prominent role in national affairs of the Hezbollah group backed by chief Saudi rival Iran.
The decision to abandon funding offered in 2013 was taken to protest Lebanon’s failure to condemn an attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran “as the so-called Hezbollah confiscates the will of the state,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday. Hezbollah’s criticism of Saudi Arabia, and its “terror against the Arab and Muslim community,” had led Riyadh to reevaluate its ties to Lebanon, the agency said. Another $1 billion in assistance to the Lebanese police force was also axed.
The Saudi assistance was destined to buy French weapons for the Lebanese army as part of the government’s long-term plan to modernize its forces. Lebanon has received the first batch of arms, which included armored vehicles, attack helicopters, and artillery. Nexter Systems SA and Eurocopter were among the companies likely to benefit from the deal.
Saudi Arabia is unable to ensure the French weapons won’t fall into the hands of Hezbollah, whose fighters are supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria’s war, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. Saudi Arabia backs opposition forces in the conflict.
“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 pledge three years ago was seen as part of a more assertive Saudi foreign policy to buy regional influence and counter Iranian power. The Arab world’s largest economy also stepped up assistance Egyptian authorities who overthrew President Mohamed Mursi and mainly Sunni rebels battling Assad.
Local media reports have criticized the slow implementation of the deal to bolster an army facing a growing threat of attack as the Syria war spills across its borders. Lebanon has witnessed car bombings and clashes that pitted the army against Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front militants.
Assem Araji, a Lebanese lawmaker who’s a member of the pro-Saudi Future Movement, said scrapping of the aid followed a barrage of verbal attacks by Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah on Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia.
“The Hezbollah leadership is the reason why this happened,” he said by phone, adding that he feared further retaliation could involve the more than half a million Lebanese who work in the Gulf and whose remittances help shore up the economy.
Nasrallah has upped his attacks against Saudi Arabia since the kingdom began its war against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen almost a year ago, accusing it of creating Islamic State and prolonging conflicts in the region.
The United Arab Emirates backed Saudi Arabia’s decision on the grounds that Lebanon’s interests have been “hijacked” by Hezbollah, the state-run WAM news agency reported.
In a statement, Hezbollah said the Saudi decision was linked to a financial crisis brought on by the fall in oil prices and the kingdom’s war in Yemen. Blaming Hezbollah “won’t deceive anyone,” it said.