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Saudi Arabia’s $3bn aid package to Lebanese security forces has been suspended amid the fallout between regional powers Riyadh and Tehran.
The aid was meant to buy French arms, which Lebanese officials said was necessary to fight jihadi groups on its border with war-torn Syria, including Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
The decision comes after Lebanon abstained from condemning an attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran, after Riyadh executed the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Lebanon is caught between Shia-powered Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The country is home to the powerful Iranian-backed Shia militia Hizbollah, which is fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. But many of its Sunni Muslim and some Christian leaders are backed by Riyadh.
The state news agency SPA, quoting an official source, said that despite its long support for the country, “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been met with Lebanese strands that are against it on Arab, regional and international arenas, in the shade of the confiscation of the state’s will by the so called Lebanese Hizbollah”.
One shipment of French weapons and equipment was delivered to Lebanon in April last year, according to Reuters news agency. But Riyadh’s suspension of the aid package throws further deliveries into doubt.
The Saudi move will be another blow for Lebanon’s struggling economy. The country of 4m has also had to absorb 2m Syrian refugees. The country’s public debt had reached $70.3bn by the end of 2015, according to the local newspaper the Daily Star. A World Bank report from last year said that the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio was more than 143 per cent.
“This was a very harsh message to Lebanon . . . The Lebanese armed forces are very dependent on the Saudi aid and needed it to buy the French weapons,” said analyst Rosana Boumonsef, who writes for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar.
Hizbollah critics accuse the group of having a big influence on the Lebanese security forces. It has been argued that Saudi Arabia offered the aid package originally as an attempt to counter that influence.
In recent speeches, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has specifically accused Riyadh of supporting terror groups inside Syria, ratcheting up already harsh rhetoric against Hsaudi Arabia.
The Saudi aid suspension could spur Iran to offer aid. Last year, Beirut rejected an offer of weapons supplies because Iran was still under international sanctions at the time.
“Iran will offer again to give weapons, but I don’t know if they can offer the money — or if Lebanon would even be able to accept if they did,” Ms Boumonsef said.