The full story of the Saudi arms gift to Lebanon

Discussions are underway concerning the $3 billion grant made by Saudi Arabia to the Lebanese army, but it is unlikely that French arms suppliers will give Lebanon weapons that could pose a threat to Israel.

al-monitor Lebanon's former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks to Prince Mansour bin Saud bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh as they arrive for the funeral of Prince Badr bin Abdul Aziz, April 2, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser.

Topics covered

unifil, south lebanon, saudi arabia, military aid, lebanon, israel, border security

Feb 25, 2014

Despite the insistence of Beirut and Riyadh on the rapid implementation of Saudi Arabia’s $3 billion plan to arm the Lebanese army and strengthen its defensive capabilities, the French are approaching this issue from the standpoint of the interests of Israel and other international matters, mainly how to maintain the status quo in southern Lebanon in the face of the Israeli enemy.

This tripartite political deal suggests that the world and the Gulf want to strengthen the Lebanese army and enable it to control the border so as not to repeat the example of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis. The deal also suggests that the world and the Gulf are betting on other tasks to be done by the army in Lebanon in the future, thus ignoring the depth of the relationship between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah and the great mutual trust between the two sides, something that the French have been testing in the field through their UNIFIL soldiers and officers.

A French diplomatic source told As-Safir the story of the $3 billion Saudi gift from A to Z, starting from the fallout from the Qusair battle, from which Hezbollah emerged as a regional player that was able to change the power balance in the region, down to considerations related to a French-Saudi desire of keeping alive the option of extending President Michel Suleiman’s mandate till the last minute of his tenure. The arms deal served as a form of pressure that speeded up the formation of the new government, with the president retaining the defense ministry (Samir Mokqel) as part of the guarantee for the tripartite deal.

In the details, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz had asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman during their meeting in Riyadh on Nov. 11 about why the Lebanese army hadn’t closed the border with Syria and prevented Hezbollah fighters from crossing. Then [former Prime Minister] Saad al-Hariri asked the king for permission to speak and told the king that the Lebanese army could close the border if it had the capabilities to do so, and thus it needed support and weapons, and the army’s leadership has developed an arming plan.

Suleiman supported Hariri’s comment. So the king signaled with his hand to the Royal Court Chief Khaled al-Tuwaijri, who was sitting to his left with the rest of the official Saudi delegation, and said to him, “Move quickly to provide all support for the arming of the Lebanese army.”

At this point, Tuwaijri’s role began. He is aware of the importance of the French role in taking the Saudi side in several international junctures, from the issue of the Syrian chemical weapons to the Iranian nuclear file passing through the UN Security Council.

The Saudi king ordered finding a formula that provided the Lebanese army with the weapons it wanted, by the French this time. And on this basis, consultations were held between Tuwaijri and a number of French officials, culminating in his traveling to Paris in mid-December 2013. In France, Tuwaijri met with Suleiman, who had said that he traveled to France to treat his left eyelid.

The French said Suleiman and Tuwaijri met in the presence of a Lebanese figure (from the March 14 movement) at Tuwaijri’s mansion in a luxurious Parisian suburb and agreed on the term “Saudi Arabia’s gift” to the Lebanese army worth $3 billion to be dedicated exclusively to buying French weapons and munitions.

The important point in that meeting was that the Saudis told Suleiman that they would not disburse a penny until after a new Lebanese government headed by Tammam Salam was formed, leaving it to the Lebanese army command to reach an understanding with the French and the Saudis on how to spend the Saudi donation according to a list prepared by the Lebanese army as part of a five-year plan presented to the government of [former Prime Minister] Najib Mikati at the beginning of 2013.

Beirut, Riyadh and Paris agreed on the date when the Saudi gift would be announced: Dec. 29, 2013, the date of the French-Saudi summit in Riyadh. At the same time — actually, at the same hour — Suleiman canceled an open meeting with the Lebanese media and replaced it with a speech, which he ended with the famous phrase: “Long live the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

It is true that the Saudi gift was the biggest decision since independence not only in support of the Lebanese army but also the Lebanese state, but the decision has been marred by confusion, which many spoke of at the time. The confusion centered on two points: first, how to harmonize the decision to arm the Lebanese army with French weapons despite that most of the Lebanese army’s weapons and training was American; the second point was about the limits of the French armament and whether the armament would include defensive and offensive weapons and modern monitoring equipment.

The Saudi decision was followed up by Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji. In mid-January, he visited Paris and met with a number of French military officials, among them the chief of staff for the president of the republic, Gen. Benoit Puga; then-Chief of Defense Staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud; and, the director of the General Administration of Arms, Engineer Gen. Jean-Luc Combrisson.

According to the French, the visit’s results were not encouraging for the Lebanese side. The two sides agreed to follow up with a visit by Kahwaji to Riyadh in early February 2014, where he would meet Guillaud and two of his top aides to complete the discussions in a tripartite way.

In Riyadh, Kahwaji started his visit with an undisclosed meeting that grouped Kahwaji, Tuwaijri, the head of the Saudi Royal Guard Gen. Hamad bin Mohammed al-Ohaly, Saudi officers and air, sea and land specialists, and a Lebanese diplomat.

According to French information, the Lebanese side presented a preliminary list of weapons and gear that it wanted. Tuwaijri said that the kingdom’s role was strictly advisory. And Kahwaji was informed that King Abdullah received a promise from President Francois Hollande that France would contribute supporting the deal materially to make it easier and that the Lebanese army would be trained for free on how to use the new weapons.

Tuwarji advised the Lebanese side not to rush the weapons orders to ensure that Lebanon gets the best French offer.

At the tripartite meeting, which was attended by Guillaud and France’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bertrand Besancenot, Tuwaijri told the French it was important that Lebanon get good prices, stressing that weapon delivery should be quick, that they come from French army reserves, that there should be a state-to-state agreement, and that the French government contract with French companies. Guillaud responded that these points were settled and that his country would make things easier, as promised by Hollande.

According to French information, Tuwaijri tried to embarrass Guillaud by insisting that the deal include anti-aircraft missiles of the Mistral type. But Guillaud didn’t commit that France would provide those missiles, or any other missiles, to Lebanon. So Tuwaijri hinted that the rest of the contracts that were to be signed between Saudi Arabia and France depended on whether France quickly implemented Saudi Arabia’s gift to Lebanon with the best conditions and prices. The French pledged to complete the discussion between them and the Lebanese army and that they would inform the Saudis about progress.

Indeed, a French military delegation visited Beirut in the past few days and discussed with the army command the weapons list that Kahwaji had given the French. The latter assigned the matter to Gen. Hugues Delort-Laval, the French official responsible for arming the Lebanese army. Delort-Laval has “Lebanese-Israeli experience” and will determine the quality of weapons that can be delivered to Lebanon without stomping on the mines of Israeli objections.

Delort-Laval has served as Chief of Staff of the French UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon in 2012 and 2013. He handles international relations for the chiefs of staff and the office of supporting the export of French weapons. Which weapons Lebanon will get as part of the Saudi gift depends on a range of international and Israeli conditions as well as commercial and political considerations.

The French military source told As-Safir that the process of arming the Lebanese army “should not affect the power balance or the existing ‘status quo’ on the Lebanese-Israeli border, nor should it increase the burden on UNIFIL operations, nor change the nature of the task carried out by [UN] soldiers in the area south of the Litani.”

If the United States doesn’t want to cause any change in the conditions in southern Lebanon and its current power balance, then the Lebanese weapon requests won’t match what the French have in mind. The same source said that the French would not give Lebanon any sensitive weapon systems or any advanced technology that Israel might consider a threat.

According to the source, the Lebanese army weapons’ list is still the subject of consultation with Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The issue of delivering defensive weapons has been definitively resolved. But the nature of these weapons is still under discussion.

It is now certain that the French will give the Lebanese army Gazelle helicopters. But the fundamental question that will determine the level of French arming to the Lebanese army and to what degree the deal will satisfy Lebanon’s real needs depends on whether the French will supply helicopters armed with missiles as well as supplying Mistral weapons, which is unlikely.

In this context, the French source said that supplying helicopters with rockets was still under consideration.

It is noteworthy that a few years ago the French looked askance at supplying nine Gazelle helicopters (a UAE grant) with HOT (High Subsonic Optical Remote-Guided, Tube-Launched) missiles and their support bases. Only five of these helicopters were left after the rest were used for spare parts.

The French military official said that integrating the new French equipment would take a long time before the Lebanese army could start using it.

A French military expert who is monitoring the issue said that the French have proposed strengthening the Lebanese army’s infrastructure first. Among the proposals is to devote $600 million to rehabilitate the central military hospital and the military medical centers in the regions; and $250 million to rehabilitate regular military transports.

The cost of supplying the Lebanese army with troop transports and armored vehicles is about $200 million. A study is being done on renovating the Lebanese navy and providing it patrol ships and radars to protect the Lebanese oil region in the future, when oil extraction starts. There is also a project to confront acts of terrorism across the sea ​​and land borders, including developing the wiretapping and surveillance capabilities of army intelligence.

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