DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Friday it suspended a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army in what a official called a response to Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
Saudi Arabia was enraged when Iranians, protesting against the kingdom’s execution of a Shi‘ite Muslim cleric, raided its missions last month - and many countries in the region came out in support of Riyadh.
The Saudi SPA news agency quoted an official source saying Lebanon had not joined in condemning the attacks at two recent summits because Beirut had come under pressure from Lebanon’s powerful Shi‘ite Muslim movement Hezbollah.
The unnamed official added that Riyadh had also canceled the remainder of $1 billion in aid it had earmarked for Lebanon’s internal security service.
The moves underlined the deep sensitivities in a region riven by the rivalry between Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and the leading Shi‘ite power Iran. The two are backing different sides in Syria’s civil war and different factions in neighboring Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam urged Saudi Arabia to reconsider.
“We express our deep appreciation for King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his brothers in the Saudi leadership ... and we hope for a reconsideration of the decision to halt the aid for our army and security forces,” Salam said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia pledged the aid package for the Lebanese army in 2013 in what then-Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called the largest grant ever to the country’s armed forces.
The first shipment of French weapons and military equipment had already been delivered to Lebanon in April last year under the Saudi-funded deal to bolster the Lebanese army’s fight against Islamist militants encroaching from neighboring Syria.
The Saudi official source quoted by SPA said the kingdom had always supported Lebanon.
But “despite these honorable stands, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been met with Lebanese stands that are against it on Arab, regional and international arenas,” the statement said.
Sunni politician Saad Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, criticized what he said was “use of the Lebanese state’s foreign policy in the service of regional axes” - an indirect reference to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and to Lebanese Hezbollah and its backer Iran.
Bassil, who attended the January summits, refused to vote on a joint Arab statement condemning the Saudi mission attacks, because he said it also criticized Hezbollah, and stressed the need for “national unity” in Lebanon. Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement is allied to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah on Friday said the Saudi decision to halt aid had been taken a long time ago because of the kingdom’s spending on its military involvement in Yemen, and because of low oil prices.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and John Davison in Beirut and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Heavens