Saudi Arabia’s pledge to support the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to the tune of $3 billion over the next five years should be cautiously welcomed.
The army is one of the few genuinely cross-sectarian bodies in this divided country and enjoys widespread support. In 2013 a study by the Norwegian research company FAFO found that the LAF was by far the most trusted institution in the country, with over 80 percent support compared with averages of around 50 percent for the parliament and the government. Most significantly, the backing was roughly consistent across all age groups and sects (it was lower among Sunnis, but still the most trusted body).
Despite its reputation, the LAF suffers from chronic underfunding (see main article). Tasked in its mandate with juggling the daunting duties of defending the country against foreign aggressors, reclaiming Lebanese land under Israeli occupation and maintaining internal security; it is clearly incapable of keeping all the balls in the air.
This is partly about technology; while the LAF has plenty of manpower much of its hardware, such as dozens of Soviet-made tanks, are relics from previous eras. The need for investment is clear.
Thus the $3 billion could be a major moment for the country, allowing the military to significantly improve its capabilities. It will not become a regional superpower and will remain incapable of providing a realistic military threat to Israel, but it could get a much firmer grip over internal security and stop the country sliding into further strife. This best-case scenario would be welcome.
But then we return to politics. No one with knowledge of the Middle East will accept that Saudi’s motives are purely philanthropic. Indeed, the deal appears to have as much to do with boosting Riyadh’s relations with France as with concerns about Lebanon’s security.
Those that have cried foul have accused Saudi Arabia of seeking to politicize the army, or to use the funding to create a counterweight to Hezbollah. Indeed, the Hezbollah-leaning Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar alleged that the deal was contingent on the Shi’ite group being excluded from the next government.
If the Saudis want to be seen as honest brokers — supporting the most beloved of Lebanese institutions out of concern for the country’s stability, rather than sectarian preference — then assurances are needed. Foremost among these would be a guarantee that the leaders of the LAF alone will choose what areas they wish to strengthen and what they wish to buy. Any Saudi interference, whether direct or indirect, will only pour fuel on political fires.
So far transparency has been severely lacking — as yet there are few indications of where the money might end up. To avoid perceptions of favoritism, more clarity is needed from both the Saudis and the LAF.
The widespread support for the military is to be cherished. While the need for new funding is great, it cannot be traded in exchange for independence.