BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia's decision to provide Lebanon's armed forces with $3 billion to buy French weapons is a major boost for President Francois Hollande's drive to step up French defense exports to the Arab world, particularly the Persian Gulf monarchies.
France "now appears to be positioning itself for lucrative military deals in the gulf region," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
The Saudi move unveiled this month is widely seen as a rebuff of the United States, the kingdom's leading arms supplier for 40 years, over its efforts to achieve detente with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival. But it's also a reward for France, which under Hollande, has supported Riyadh's tough line on bringing down the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
The Saudis have been alarmed for some time about U.S. plans to disengage in the Middle East, and were particularly angry about U.S. President Barack Obama's decision in the fall to drop plans for military strikes against Damascus for Bashar allegedly using chemical weapons against his own people.
"In many ways, Riyadh and Paris make for an odd couple, given that Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Salafist monarchy while France is an ultra-secular republic," Stratfor commented. "Geopolitics, however, is transcends ideologies and often creates unlikely relationships -- just like the one the United States and Iran are trying to forge."
The Saudis, patrons and protectors of the world's Sunni Muslims, see strengthening Lebanon's military as a way to counter Shiite Iran's influence in the Levant through its main regional proxy, Hezbollah, supported by the Assad regime.
France, which ruled Lebanon under mandate after World War 1 until giving it independence in 1943, has close links with Beirut.
The $3 billion put up by Riyadh will buy the Lebanese military, currently outgunned by Hezbollah, what it has long been denied by the United States, until now its main benefactor. Washington has refused to provide heavy weapons and offensive capabilities in case they fell into the hands of Hezbollah.
Another factor is that Lebanon is still technically at war with southern neighbor Israel, although the army has rarely engaged in combat with Israel and its far superior firepower.
All told, the United States has provided non-lethal aid worth $1 billion since 2006 following Hezbollah's 34-day war against Israel. That amount is far exceeded by the Saudi pledge, which is almost double the Lebanese army's 2012 budget allocation.
The Lebanese are expected to go shopping for air-defense systems, a major gap in their military capabilities, attack helicopters, mobile artillery, naval patrol boats, special forces equipment and reconnaissance/surveillance systems.
The United Arab Emirates has offered military aid and is expected to deliver three French-built Puma helicopters soon.
The announcement of the Saudi aid for Lebanon came two days after Hollande wrapped up a visit to Saudi Arabia for talks on commercial links with Riyadh, which hasn't bought any major French arms systems for two decades.
It was Hollande's second visit to Riyadh since his May 2012 election. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has visited Riyadh three times in the same period -- and has visited the gulf monarchies 13 times since mid-2012, underlining France's determination to rebuild relations following the inconclusive efforts of Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, to reopen up the region to French arms exports.
Much is at stake for the French. Hollande's top priority is to sell Dassault Aviation's Rafale multirole combat jet which so far has not found any foreign buyers.
Unless Paris comes up with one soon, Dassault will have to cut back production substantially for the French air force and navy, the jet's only customers -- a heavy blow for France's defense industry.
Negotiations to sell the Emirates 60 Rafales to replace Dassault Mirage F-2000-9s acquired two decades ago have dragged on for years, but the French jet remains in the running with Boeing's F/A-18 its only apparent competitor for the $10 billion contract.
Gas-rich Qatar, which is looking for 72 frontline jet fighters, is another potential buyer for the Rafale.
France's main problem with arms sales in the gulf is that it does not have the military clout to guarantee the national security of the Arab monarchies on its own, as the Americans have done for decades.