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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