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Iran-Saudi Rivalry
France Seeks to Jumpstart Stalled Saudi-Lebanon Deal

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia suspended a $3 billion dollar arms contract with Lebanon amid a wider fallout over the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Beirut. But with a new government in place, the Saudis’ French middlemen are arguing that the time is ripe to implement the deal. Reuters:

Conditions to implement a multi-billion dollar contract to supply Saudi-financed French weapons to Lebanon are now favorable after the formation of a new government in Beirut, France’s foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Thursday.

Speaking in the Lebanese capital after meeting President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Ayrault said it was also more important than ever that the new authorities keep up dialogue with Saudi Arabia and Iran to ensure the country was not dragged into the Syrian conflict.

“The conditions are favorable,” Ayrault told reporters during a visit after the formation of the new government on Sunday. “The sun is shining again on Lebanon.”

The French have obvious reasons to hope that the contract will be implemented; a multibillion arms deal would provide a welcome boost to France’s defense industry. But the sanguine French outlook on the deal’s prospects is at odds with Saudi Arabia’s perception of the situation in Beirut. Lebanon has lately become a more prominent stage for the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the Saudi side has been losing. Riyadh’s suspension of the deal this year was a bitter protest against Beirut’s perceived capitulation to the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is important to remember that Lebanon is not a coherent state with stable and well-defined interests; it more closely resembles a patronage system of competing sectarian groupings. For years, the Saudis have poured money into Lebanon to prop up the Sunnis and Maronites, but they have experienced diminishing returns of late as the Shi‘a gain ground. Lebanon’s new president Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri have made peace with this new reality and accepted the need for a tactical alliance with Hezbollah, as Tehran rejoices. But the new arrangement hardly sits well with Saudi Arabia.

Despite Paris’s optimism, then, the Saudis are unlikely to assent to a deal that could empower Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. And Riyadh’s perception that Hezbollah is calling the shots in Beirut will only be strengthened by recent Israeli reports that American equipment intended for the Lebanese Army has ended up in the hands of Hezbollah militants in Syria. So long as Shi‘a interests advance in Lebanon, ties between Riyadh and Beirut are likely to be strained.

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  • Observe&Report

    As of September of this year, there were just over a million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon with another half a million unregistered. Virtually all of them are Sunnis, making Sunnis the majority (albeit slightly).

    With Hezbollah sustaining heavy losses fighting on behalf of the Assad regime (at least 10% of its total manpower), it’s hard to see how the Shia, and by extension, Iran, could increasingly be calling the shots.

    The degree of Iranian influence in Lebanon could be exaggerated.

  • Fat_Man

    more importantly, I would bet that the Saudis are concerned that any weapons they buy for the Lebanese government will wind up in the hands of their enemies. Also don’t forget that the Saudis are feeling not so flush these days as oil stays around $50.

  • Disappeared4x

    J’Accuse! France’s FM Ayrault redefining chutzpah wanting to sell more weapons to Lebanon. France ignores UNSC Resolution 1701 from 2006, and now Hezbollah has >70,000 missiles burrowed amongst civilians in Southern Lebanon, pointed towards Israel.

    Perhaps France could instead deploy a few thousand bomb sniffing Belgian Malinois to Lebanon…

    Aoun was Nasrallah of Hezbollah’s choice for Lebanon’s Presidency. Hariri had no voice.

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