BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia has pledged $3 billion to buy arms for the Lebanese Army from France, President Michel Sleiman said Sunday, describing it as the biggest grant ever for the military in Lebanon’s history.
“I am happy to tell the Lebanese people the Saudi monarch will give $3 billion in aid to bolster the Army’s capabilities,” he said in a televised speech.
“The Saudi grant will allow the Lebanese Army to purchase weapons from France,” he said, adding that he hoped France would quickly meet this initiative and help the Lebanese Army with arms, training and maintenance.
Sleiman did not provide any further details, but said French President Francois Hollande was to discuss the matter during his visit Sunday to Saudi Arabia.
Hollande said his country would “meet” any requests from Lebanon.
“I am in touch with President Sleiman ... If requests are addressed to us, we will meet them,” he told reporters answering a question about Sleiman’s announcement that came as the French leader arrived in Riyadh. Hollande held talks with Saudi King Abdullah.
He later met former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who thanked him for France’s continued support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Hariri underlined the “significance of France’s support for the Lebanese state and its legitimate institutions, particularly the Lebanese Army, which is the backbone of internal stability,” the National News Agency reported. It said Hariri praised the French tendency to quickly implement the Saudi aid to provide the Lebanese Army with equipment.
During the 40-minute meeting, also attended by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Hollande and Hariri discussed the situation in Lebanon and regional developments, particularly the crisis in Syria, the NNA said. Hariri earlier praised Sleiman’s speech and thanked the Saudi king for the “historic and unprecedented” grant to the Army. He said the Saudi aid came as part of a project to impose state control.
Sleiman “announced an exceptional step in the transition to a real state whose authority is not challenged by any other authority and whose army is not rivaled by any other army,” Hariri said in a statement. He praised Sleiman for declaring loudly that he assumed responsibility for defending the country a few months before the president’s six-year term in office expires on May 25, 2014.
“President Sleiman has declared that the revival of the state and its institutions can only be done through establishing a strong Army capable of shouldering the responsibility of defending the border, sovereignty and national peace,” Hariri said.
He added that Sleiman’s efforts to strengthen the Army were successful. “This was realized through the historic and unprecedented support that ... King Abdullah has decided to offer to Lebanon and its Army,” Hariri said.
The head of the Future Movement said Sleiman’s speech healed the wounds of thousands of Lebanese who were deeply hurt by the assassination of former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, and his companions. Shatah, a political adviser to Hariri, was killed in a car bombing along with seven others in Beirut Friday.
In his speech, Sleiman thanked the Saudi monarch, saying: “After decades of unsuccessful efforts with no tangible results, I was able through contacts with King Abdullah to provide the Lebanese Army with this exceptional grant.”
Noting that Lebanon was threatened with “a sectarian conflict and extremism” due to the fallout of the war in Syria, he stressed that boosting the Army’s capabilities had become “a collective national and popular demand and a source of pride.” He said the funds would be used to buy arms from France, pointing to “historical ties that link it to Lebanon and the depth of the two countries’ military cooperation.”
He said efforts were under way to form a new Cabinet as soon as possible based on the 1943 National Pact. He denied he ever discussed the extension of his term or the nine-month Cabinet crisis during his foreign trips, including his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.