December 15, 2021 | Policy Brief

Macron Looks to Revive Saudi Financing for French Military Contracts in Lebanon

December 15, 2021 | Policy Brief

Macron Looks to Revive Saudi Financing for French Military Contracts in Lebanon

After meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Jeddah on December 4, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Saudis would re-engage in Lebanese affairs “to help the people of Lebanon and do everything so that an economic and commercial opening can happen.” This vague assertion leaves unclear whether the Saudis agreed to finance the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF’s) procurement of French weapons and military equipment, which was Macron’s actual priority.

The French president’s visit to Saudi Arabia wrapped up a tour of the Gulf Arab states that saw stops in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In Dubai, Macron signed a major contract to sell French Rafale fighter jets worth $19 billion to the Emiratis. Since losing a $66 billion diesel-electric submarine contract with Australia in September, Macron has looked to secure alternative deals to make up for the loss, such as a $3.5 billion deal to sell warships to Greece.

Macron wanted Saudi Arabia to be next. What Macron meant by a “commercial opening” to Lebanon is for Riyadh to revive a $3 billion grant from 2014 to finance LAF purchases of French weapons, including short-range air defense systems, artillery systems, combat and transport vehicles, Cougar attack helicopters, fast-attack patrol vessels, and surveillance and communications equipment. After the delivery of 48 Milan anti-tank missiles in April 2015, the Kingdom canceled the program in February 2016, as Riyadh underwent what an unnamed Saudi official described at the time as “a total evaluation of its relations with the Lebanese republic.” In other words, the Saudis concluded that their grant would merely prop up a Hezbollah-dominated political system.

Reviving this grant — and an additional pledge of $1 billion for Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) — has been a priority for both France and the Biden administration. In July, the U.S. and French ambassadors to Lebanon even made an unusual joint visit to the Kingdom to plead with the Saudis to fund the LAF and ISF, to no avail.

Unlike France, the Biden administration has taken it upon itself to underwrite the LAF directly, in addition to soliciting Saudi support. The administration has been dead set on mining for funds in what it euphemistically calls “creative ways,” which include bypassing U.S. law to supplement LAF salaries through a UN-managed fund. The Biden administration also transferred three offshore patrol vessels to the Lebanese Navy. France, by contrast, extended the bankrupt Lebanese government a €400 million line of credit to purchase four French patrol vessels. In practice, Washington’s subsidization of the LAF budget may enable Beirut to pay down its debt to Paris.

France also has other investments in Lebanon and is looking to secure additional projects, including a contract to rehabilitate and operate the Beirut port, which a giant blast leveled in August 2020. Following the blast, Macron met in Beirut with Hezbollah officials, where he reportedly told them, “I want to work with you to change Lebanon.”

In this context, renewed Saudi financing of LAF procurement would serve mainly to stabilize the Hezbollah-led order in which Paris has invested. Nonetheless, the French framed Macron’s visit to Riyadh as a favor to the Saudis. A French official opined that Saudi Arabia’s re-engagement with Lebanon was a quid pro quo for Macron’s high-profile visit, as Western leaders have avoided meeting with the crown prince over his alleged role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi political operative-turned-Washington Post contributor.

For now, despite Macron’s claim of clinching a commitment, the Saudis do not appear to have agreed to re-open their checkbooks to finance French contracts with the LAF. Riyadh did, however, offer Macron a joint venture to build a factory in the Kingdom to make aerostructure components.

That deal is not the $3 billion Macron had hoped for, but judging by recent statements from senior Biden administration officials, the French president can rely on continued U.S. calls for the Saudis to finance French interests in the land of Hezbollah.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Tony and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Tony on Twitter @AcrossTheBay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States Hezbollah Lebanon