After a year in which dozens of soldiers have been killed across Lebanon, and when the country teeters on the brink of chaos, this week’s $3 billion grant to the Army from Saudi Arabia could not have come at a better time. But it must not be politicized by certain actors, looking to find flaws in anything the kingdom can do.
While Saudi Arabia, and other countries, both in the Gulf and the West, have provided assistance to the Lebanese Army before, this is the biggest ever single aid package. And it arrives at such a critical juncture for the country, when it is facing threats from each of its borders, and battling internal divisions and violence as well.
But amid all these crises, it sends a signal that Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s de facto leaders, has faith in Lebanon, and in particular its army and its ability to persevere and stabilize the country, insulating itself from regional turmoil.
The Army is symbolically the strongest institution in the country – to most Lebanese it represents unity, and remains to a large extent neutral in the face of internal political or sectarian divisions.
It has managed, against all odds, to transcend the dangerous habit of affiliation which has plagued most other institutions in the country, often while sacrificing its own members, as has been evidenced this year, with losses during battles in Sidon, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.
But while it is symbolically strong, and holds this special place in the national psyche, it is physically weak: chronically underfunded and its soldiers and resources overstretched.
Forced to patrol every border, it also finds itself filling in where other security agencies are failing, often acting as policeman, negotiator and emergencies director as well as soldier.
So this grant – which equals the military assistance given to Israel from the U.S. each year – will be crucial in helping the Army fill in some worrying gaps, and is a commendable signal from the kingdom. But still, certain voices in the Lebanese political spectrum have found it necessary to criticize the move, the same voices who have always accused Saudi Arabia of meddling in Lebanon’s domestic affairs.
Saudi Arabia has always been a friend to Lebanon when it has been in need, propping up its currency when it was in jeopardy, and helping it patch itself up after the Civil War and 2006 conflict. It has consistently stood by Lebanon, and this latest grant, while hugely welcomed, should therefore not come as a massive surprise. The condition that the money must be spent on French arms is undoubtedly intended as a message to the U.S. that the kingdom has new friends, but ultimately the move will benefit Lebanon.
All that can be hoped now is that the Lebanese distance themselves from politicizing the move, and also that the Army is able to use the money most effectively as possible, and not let the equipment be affected by traditional Lebanese bureaucracy and corruption. The Army is for all of Lebanon, anyone would have trouble denying that, so any efforts to support the institution must be taken as a move to support all Lebanese, regardless of political affiliation or sectarian background, the factors which the Army works so hard to ignore.