Beirut: Saudi Arabia announced on Friday it is halting deals worth $4 billion aimed at equipping and supporting Lebanese security forces, a possible retaliation for the tiny nation’s siding with Iran amid the kingdom’s spat with the country.
The surprise announcement, carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, comes as deeply divided Lebanon struggles to handle the fallout from neighboring Syria’s raging civil war. The Lebanese government declined to immediately comment on the Saudi decision.
One deal involves Saudi Arabia paying $3 billion to buy French arms for the Lebanese military. The other involves a $1 billion support deal for the Lebanese police.
Saudi Arabia said it halted the deals because of recent Lebanese positions “which are not in line with the brotherly relations between the two countries.”
In light of positions taken by Hezbollah the kingdom proceeded to “a total evaluation of its relations with the Lebanese republic”, an unnamed official told the Saudi Press Agency.
A Lebanese military source said that the “Lebanese army command hasn’t been informed” of the Saudi aid halt.
It comes after Lebanese Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil declined to support resolutions against Iran during two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers.
Bassil is the president of the right-wing Christian Free Patriotic Movement, which is one of the strongest allies of the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon.
Lebanon received the first tranche of weapons designed to bolster its army against terrorist threats, including anti-tank guided missiles, in April last year but the programme then reportedly ran into obstacles.
In June a French diplomatic source denied that the deal had been cancelled but said there were delays, while the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said the agreement was proceeding normally.
Leaders of Lebanon-based Hezbollah are under sanction by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia long has been suspicious of Iran, which supports Hezbollah and Syria’s embattled President Bashar Al Assad.
Relations took a turn for the worse at the start of the year, when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric and protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran. That in turn prompted Riyadh to cut diplomatic relations with Tehran.
The Lebanese army is generally seen as a unifying force in the country, and draws its ranks from all of Lebanon’s sects. However, it’s widely viewed as being much weaker than Hezbollah.
Historically, the Lebanese army has been equipped by the United States and France.