Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, right, talks to French President François Hollande in Riyadh on Dec. 30. Saudi Arabia is giving $3 billion to Lebanon to boost its military capabilities with French equipment. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)
DUBAI — The $3 billion Saudi Arabian grant to the Lebanese Army to buy equipment from France will prove to be a real test for Iran’s new foreign policy, according to an expert.
The grant, described by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman as the largest ever given to the country’s armed forces, represents the more proactive role Saudi Arabia is playing in Middle Eastern politics. It will also force Iran to present more concessions in its efforts to lift international sanctions that have crippled the country, said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Beirut and Dubai.
On Sunday in a televised address, Suleiman said “the king of the brotherly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is offering this generous and appreciated aid of $3 billion to the Lebanese Army to strengthen its capabilities.”
“This Saudi-French move has made Iran’s task of rapprochement with the western powers tougher,” Kahwaji said. “Now Iran has to give up more than their nuclear program for the lifting of the sanctions.”
Kahwaji said that with the Lebanese military receiving a grant that is double its existing budget, the centralized government will have more power and will be well-equipped to deal with the security threats. In addition, the capability will present a counterbalance to Hezbollah, which is the main anchor of military might in Lebanon.
“Israel will wait and watch how this will unfold,” he added. “Currently Hezbollah is at its most vulnerable situation, they are in Syria and are over stretched.”
He said the Israeli response this week to the cross-border rocket fire from Lebanon was the strongest since the 2006 war between the two countries.
“The Lebanese Army will have access to weaponry worth $3 billion from France,” he said. “The Lebanese follow the French doctrines and are expected to equip their special forces, naval capabilities and air support capabilities.”
Lebanon has 12,000 special operations forces who have been “unevenly equipped.”
“The special forces, I expect, will be the first to be armed with high-tech equipment in addition to communications systems and short range air defense systems,” he said.
Kahwaji added that the UK has given the green light to the United Arab Emirates to transfer 10 Hawk light attack jets to Lebanon that can provide close-air support to their ground troops.
“According to the Lebanese Air Force command, their fighter jet needs are not for MiG-29s or F-16s but rather for close-air support fighters,” he said.
The Lebanese armed forces have been struggling to deal with violence spreading over the border from Syria’s civil war and has seen clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, as well as militant attacks on the Army itself.
Lebanon’s Army is seen as one of the few institutions not overtaken by sectarian divisions that plague the country. But it is ill-equipped to deal with internal militant groups, particularly the Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla and political movement Hezbollah, which is funded by the regional Shi’ite power Iran.