The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia with French President Francois Hollande in Riyadh yesterday.
BEIRUT/riyadh: Saudi Arabia has pledged $3bn for the Lebanese army to buy equipment from France, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman announced yesterday.
The kingdom “decided to provide generous assistance to Lebanon in the form of $3bn for the Lebanese army to strengthen its capabilities,” Sleiman said, adding that it was the largest assistance provided in Lebanon’s history.
French President Francois Hollande, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, said his country would “meet” any requests from Lebanon.
The aid pledge comes amid mounting sectarian tension in Lebanon related to the war in neighbouring Syria.
Lebanon’s powerful Shia Hezbollah movement is fighting alongside President Bashar Al Assad’s forces against an uprising that many Lebanese Sunnis support.
Saudi Arabia is a leading backer of the rebels battling Assad’s regime, which has relied on strong support from Shia Iran.
Sleiman’s announcement comes two days after a bombing that targeted a leading critic of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, though the Saudi aid pledge did not appear to be directly related.
He said the money would be used to buy weapons from France, pointing to the “historical ties that link it to Lebanon and the depth of the military cooperation between the two countries”.
Sleiman did not specify what weapons would be purchased.
Lebanon’s armed forces are woefully under-equipped and face multiplying security challenges, underlined by the bomb attack on Friday and rockets fired from Lebanon into Israel on Sunday that prompted return fire from the Jewish state.
The armed forces are responsible for domestic security as well as national defence, and contain members from across Lebanon’s multi-sectarian population.
The powerful Hezbollah movement remains the country’s best-armed and trained organisation however, and its arsenal has drawn domestic criticism, including from former prime minister Saad Hariri and the so-called March 14 coalition.
Hariri, whose father was assassinated in an attack blamed on Hezbollah, welcomed the Saudi pledge and said it came as part of a project to impose state control.
Sleiman “announced an exceptional step in the transition to a real state whose authority prevails over any other authority and whose army is not exceeded by any other army,” Hariri said in a statement. Sleiman visited Saudi Arabia last month.
Meanwhile, Hollande arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday for a visit aimed at boosting prospects of commercial cooperation between the countries and addressing escalating tensions in the Middle East.
Hollande held talks with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and will meet former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba in the kingdom, said a member of his entourage. Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz met Hollande upon his arrival in the capital Riyadh. The French leader is scheduled to meet the king at his Rawdat Khurayim farm, 60km northeast of the capital.
Four ministers and 30 top figures in French business have accompanied Hollande on the visit. France and Saudi Arabia share the “will to work for peace, security and stability in the Middle East,” Hollande said in an interview published in the Saudi-owned daily Al Hayat published yesterday.
Hollande’s meeting with Hariri, a staunch critic of the Syrian regime, comes amid heightened tensions in Lebanon after the killing of his close aide, ex-minister Mohammad Chatah, in a car bomb on Friday in Beirut.
Hariri, the son of former premier Rafiq who was also assassinated in a massive car bomb in February 2005, lives outside Lebanon due to security concerns.
The Sunni Muslim leader is also a strong critic of the Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah movement, which is fighting alongside President Bashar Al Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.
In his interview with Al Hayat, Hollande called for the respect of “constitutional deadlines” in Lebanon, starting with “holding presidential elections in May 2014”. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Hollande would deliver a “special message” to Hariri reiterating that France is “a friend of the Lebanese and Lebanon, (and) calls for the integrity and independence,” of the country.
France “rejects the contagion that some want to impose between the conflict in Syria and Lebanon,” he said on the presidential plane. As for Syria, Hollande will tell Jarba that the participation of the opposition in the proposed peace conference in Switzerland on January 22 is “desirable”, according to Fabius.
The US-Russian backed Geneva talks are aimed at reaching an agreement on a transition to end the war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions. Syria’s increasingly fractured opposition has said Assad must step down as part of any deal, which Damascus rejects.
France intends to support the “moderate opposition and in no way the terrorist movements that are paradoxically serving the interests of Bashar, said Fabius. In the interview with Al-Hayat, Hollande reiterated that there cannot be a “political solution with Bashar Al Assad staying” in power.
He accused Assad of using the threat of fundamentalist fighters “to put pressure on the moderate opposition,” insisting the embattled president is not fighting extremists.
Assad said this week that his country was being confronted by a major offensive by Islamist extremists. Radical Islamist groups have taken on an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian conflict.
On the commercial front, Hollande said in his interview that Saudi Arabia has become France’s “top client in the Middle East” with trade exchange exceeding ¤8bn ($11bn) in 2013, including French exports worth three billion euros.
The balance remains in Saudi Arabia’s favour on the back of its oil exports to France.
He noted “good results” that marked commercial relations between the two countries in 2013, citing contracts won by French companies in the kingdom, including French Alstom winning Riyadh metro contract.AFP