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Russia-Saudi Arabia: A “Triumphant” Breakthrough

Ten days have passed since Saudi King’s “historic visit” to Russia. The euphoria over King Salman bin-Abdul-Aziz al-Saud’s first visit to Moscow in history of the two countries has gradually faded away. The king arrived with an impressive escort, successfully exchanged friendly greetings at the highest level and signed multi-billion contracts, part of which will be hard to implement, specifically, the ones in the field of military and technical cooperation.

The sides signed one definite contract and several preliminary ones. In particular, manufacturing of Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifle and its bullets will be set up in Saudi Arabia. “Memorandum” component of the contracts suggests acquisition and further localization (different degree of localization) of production of TOS-1A Solntsepyok multiple rocket launcher, Kornet-EM anti-tank guided missile system and AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers.

Before the Saudi monarch’s visit, the Russian military announced preparation of an arms deal worth about $3.5 billion. Even taking into account Riyadh’s request for supply and localization of the above weapons, it is hard to imagine the deal worth three billion dollars, unless it comprises S400 Triumph surface-to-air missile systems (SAM).

Little is known about the deal so far. Referring to sources in country’s military industrial field, some Russian mass media report that like Turkey, Saudi Arabia is supposed to receive four divisions of S-400 Triumph SAM for $2-$2.5 billion.

Unlike Turks, Saudis do not seek to localize/assembly S-400 SAM in their territory. They not just lack necessary technological and human resources, they do not want to launch a decades-long process of developing own capacities to produce highly technological military products.

Last Friday, on October 13, the Kremlin reported that final talks of Russia and Saudi Arabia on S-400 Triumph SAM are nearing completion. President’s aide for military and technical cooperation, Vladimir Kozhin said the sides would reach an agreement shortly. Such prompt agreement is impressing, considering that it took Russia and its Chinese partners more than three years to sign a contract (in Sept 2014) for supply of four divisions of S-400 Triumph systems.

There are two reasons behind such prompt talks with Saudis. First, Russia has become more experienced in holding talks on S-400 SAM and can easily pass the main phases. Second, Saudis have requested only sale of the systems and their possible maintenance by Russian specialists.

Moscow is happy with the contract with Saudis, who unlike Turks do not demand localization and technologies. At the same time, Russia sees too much political motives behind the contracts with both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. S-400 SAM is not a priority goal for Saudis to upgrade their defense capacity. It was a good chance to make U.S. worry.

On October 6, on the second day of King Al-Saud’s visit to Moscow, the United States approved an impressive, $15-billion deal for sale of THAAD (1) anti-tank defense systems by Saudi Arabia. Evidently, Saudis need American air defense systems more than Russian SAMs. Riyadh needs defense in depth against ballistic missiles that can be launched only from Yemen’s regions controlled by pro-Iranian Hussite rebels. A direct confrontation with Iran in future is possible as well.

The known formula of Saudi Arabia “do not sell to Iran, we will buy everything” has undergone certain changes. Now, Riyadh is acting in a more delicate manner. It no longer says Moscow “do not sell to Tehran”; it recommends itself as a more “easy going” partner in the field of military-technical cooperation. Red tape and detailed analysis of domestic demand for arms of foreign producers is widely practiced in Iran, whereas a small group of people in Saudi Arabia decides whether to buy arms from other countries. For the time being, the final decision rests upon Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We buy promptly and pay at market price,” Saudis say. Such a partner is a real pick up for a producer of weapons and military equipment. However, for Russia Iran is a geopolitical partner in current interstate relations in the Middle East. Russia has never had just commercial relations with it. With the Russian arms deal Saudis seek to “harm” Iran, which is a kind of challenge to Moscow.

This reminds a similar situation in the South Caucasus. Russia has a military union with Armenia and a large-scale arms business with Azerbaijan. That South Caucasian “Saudi Arabia” also seeks to gain advantage of Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus. “We make prompt decisions and pay at market price,” Baku echoes Saudis. In such conflict of interests, Russia has to find a balance and keep it constantly.

To distract Russia from military and technical cooperation with Iran, Saudi Arabia settles a series of specific tasks, including arms deal with Moscow for 2021, the period of international embargo (five years) on supply of weapons and military hardware to Iran in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2231 dated July 20, 2015.

Besides, the Kingdom needs to understand Russia’s stance on the processes in Syria and Middle East that are of priority importance for it.

De-escalation zones in Syria are created by three foreign actors: Russia, Turkey and Iran. Jaysh al-Islam (“Army of Islam”), currently the closest partner of Saudi Arabia and vociferous opponent of Syrian government, operates in one of the de-escalation zones. Moscow is more and more convinced that the group is “moderate.” At least, leaders of Jaysh al-Islam are permanent participants of Astana meetings on Syria. Therefore, Saudis will contribute to Russia and Jaysh al-Islam to reach an arrangement.

Meantime, Iran seeks military buildup in Syria’s Damascus Province, which will mean a serious geopolitical failure for Saudis Arabia, Israel and U.S. A “threat” of a permanent military facility of Shiite Iran in an Arab state makes Riyadh rely not only on Jaysh al-Islam and its anti-Iranian alliance with U.S. and Israel, but also on Russia as potential counterweight to Iran and Syria.

Riyadh believes that Moscow and Tehran have little chances to “coexist” on the limited military and political zone near Damascus. Consequently, it does not demand immediate overthrow of Bashar al-Assad not to make Assad “rush into the arms” of Iran instead of Russia. In such case, an Iranian base near Damascus may become for the Syrian president one of the major guarantees of his power and personal security.

C-400 deal is a resource to create a trustworthy dialogue with Russia, not to upgrade its military capacity. What Iran, Qatar and other rivals of Saudi Arabia cannot afford now is affordable to Riyadh, including financially.

Nevertheless, Russia will hardly manage to occupy a niche in the solvent arms market of Saudi Arabia that is packed with Russia’s opponents. Wedging into the ties of U.S. and European NATO countries with Saudi Kingdom with a bounce is a very hard, if not unachievable, task. So, such breakthroughs are not needed. Saudis used S-400 Triumph as a “bait” to achieve their geopolitical goals. The same should do Russia in such situation. A weighted approach and pragmatic assessment without infringing the interests of Iran and other partners in the Middle East seems the only right choice for Russia.

(1) Department of State approved sale of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia. Earlier, Saudi Arabia requested 44 THAAD launchers, 360 THAAD interceptor missiles, 16 mobile fire-control and communication stations, and seven THAAD radars TPY-2. The sale will also include 43 trucks, generators, electrical power units, and other equipment, as well as technical documentation, staff training, maintenance and logistic support by contractor etc.

Washington says the project will help providing security to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf against Iran and other regional threats.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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Published on October 16th, 2017 11:01 AM
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