BEIRUT: When the deputy defense ministers from Russia and Saudi Arabia signed a new military cooperation agreement last week, it served as not just a sign of growth between the two governments, but also as a clear signal from Riyadh: it is willing to diversify its defense relationships beyond its longtime focus on the United States.
“I signed an agreement with the Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Colonel General Alexander Fomin between the Kingdom and the Russian Federation aimed at developing joint military cooperation between the two countries,” Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman tweeted Aug. 24, on the sidelines of the International Military Technical Forum (ARMY 2021) near Moscow.
“Met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu,” he added, “to explore ways to strengthen the military and defense cooperation and discussed our common endeavor to preserve stability and security in the region.”
The agreement comes on the heels of the withdrawal of US troops from the region and the pull-out of eight Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, as well as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the Kingdom.
“The personal ambitions and challenges of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and the new shift in the US policy towards the region undoubtedly offer the Russians an opportunity they could not miss to make strong advances at the expense of their traditional rivals,” said Fadi Assaf, co-founder of Beirut-based consultancy Middle East Strategic Perspectives (MESP).
By choosing to cooperate with Russia, the message to Washington is clear: that “Moscow is now more involved in regional affairs, while the US shows less interest in the Middle East,” he added. “Accessing the Saudi defense market would mean a significant political and economic success for the Russians, who are prospecting for other Gulf markets including the UAE and Qatar, while trying to expand their presence in the Iraqi and Turkish markets.”
This isn’t the first arms agreement between the two countries. In 2017, Russia agreed to sell $3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including the rights for local manufacturing of Kornet-EM anti-tank missiles, TOS-1A multi rocket launchers, AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers and Kalashnikov rifles and ammunitions; however, those deals largely stalled out, and the level of equipment now being discussed is of higher capability — and higher geopolitical impact.
The Saudi Crown Prince “sees personal benefits from a rapprochement between the Kingdom and Putin’s Russia, on many levels: mainly as a future King and head of State, Minister of Defense, and above all as the architect of Vision 2030,” Assaf said. “As for the Russians, they are particularly opportunistic when it comes to the Middle East and the Gulf, and they would not miss any political or business opportunities coming from a huge market such as Saudi Arabia.”
What Could Riyadh Want?
Looking at the Saudi defense landscape and considering the tendencies they’ve shown in their war against Yemen, “Russian unmanned aerial systems and military helicopters seem to show the most immediate promise,” Brandon C. Patrick, a Mid-East defense analyst, told Breaking Defense.
“Both could be integrated into the Saudi order of battle with relative ease. These kinds of deals would also be less provocative to Washington than a Saudi incorporation of Russian fighter aircraft or additional air defense systems,” he said.
On the military and operational levels, one issue that gives Russia a huge advantage over the US and other traditional military partners of the Saudis is that Moscow is much more relaxed when it comes to setting conditions for the use of their weapons.
“For the Saudis (and Emiratis), the Yemen War brought to light the many restrictions imposed by their traditional suppliers when it comes to using certain weapons and technologies in their operations,” Assaf explained.
The Saudis also need to “neutralize the conditions posed by their traditional partners on the use of lethal weapons by their military and to benefit from the more relaxed attitude of the Russians in this regard,” he added. “They will look for Russian systems that are tested in battlefields and which they could optimize for their own use. They may also want to manufacture Russian systems for export.”
That last point is important. Riyadh has been keen to develop their local defense industries for some time and will try to attract programs that allow them to benefit from a transfer of technologies. Getting the rights to build more Russian systems in-country would benefit the Saudi’s home-grown industries with knowledge and experience — plus, potentially put Saudi on the map as a defense exporter.
“They are turning to Russia to compensate for what they perceive as limited transfers of technologies provided for in agreements with their traditional partners,” Assaf said.
However, analysts agree KSA should think twice before they finalize any deal of a strategic nature with the Russians, especially one related to the S-400 air defense system or fifth generation Su-35 fighter.
In a nutshell, “if Saudi Arabia and MBS want to send a signal to Washington without really endangering the American-Saudi security relationship, they’ll limit their arms deals with Russia to smaller — or even token — orders of relatively benign equipment,” Patrick said.
This could help Russia boost arms sales, even if its efforts to expand defense and strategic ties in the MENA region are not new. Iraq, Egypt and Algeria have been important customers to the Russian arms industry in recent years.
A few years ago, Saudi officials even signed agreements to acquire the Russian S-400, but that deal appears to have stalled out. For the sake of relations with the US, that may not be a bad thing. Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 led to its expulsion from the US-led F-35 program, and a rupture in diplomatic relations; Saudi military officials have long sought the right to purchase the stealth fighter, without much luck so far.
“From the economic perspective, the defense industry is one of the few areas in which Russia’s largely commodity-based economy competes on the world stage, and Putin pushes Russian arms for the strategic and economic benefits such sales yield,” Patrick said. “A smart person that I know often says that President Putin continues to play a bad hand really well, and we see that here.”
What it means
The expansion of the Saudi-Russian military cooperation is a result of many factors, including a political rapprochement between the two countries, and a geopolitical perfect storm of Russia making a political push as the US withdraws from the region and Iran is acting out. In addition, it is a result of personal interests and business and economic opportunities not to be missed from both ends.
“This doesn’t mean that we will be witnessing a global transformation or a ‘russianization’ of the Saudi military, but a [we will likely see a] new push towards a larger diversification of its armaments, which would benefit the local Saudi industry and other foreign partners,” Assaf said. “We can think of Europeans, especially France among other partners, that would benefit from this evolution.”
It is also a reflection of the strained relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration, as well as the Kingdom’s, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in particular, need to diversify its strategic relationships as its international reputation ebbs and flows.
“Western leaders have long expressed their disapproval of MBS’s Yemen campaign and were outraged by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018,” said Patrick. “Those actions carried economic and military consequences for Saudi Arabia, and severely derailed MBS’s vision for the future of Saudi Arabia.”
In the fallout, “he has worked to expand his international ties among those that ask fewer questions — if any at all — about Saudi human rights issues,” Patrick continued. “Regional rivalries in the Gulf make it fertile ground for any nation looking to broaden its customer base in the arms industry, and Russia sees the strained relationship between KSA and the US as an opportunity to continue expanding its influence in the Middle East.”
Ultimately though, it seems more likely that this agreement is meant as a Saudi Arabian signal to US leaders in Washington more than it would be the beginning of deep military ties with Russia.
“However turbulent the US relationship with KSA is and however unpredictable the effect of US politics on that relationship, MBS knows that the US is a fundamentally stronger and more capable defense partner than Russia could ever be, to say nothing of the incongruities between KSA’s and Russia’s attitudes toward Iran,” Patrick concluded.
Russia, KSA Strengthen Military Ties In Signal To Washington; UAVs, Helos Potentially On Table – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Chyrine Mezher for breakingdefense.com