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Saudi-Russian arms agreements signal a hedging of bets

King Salman’s current visit to Moscow — the first such trip by a sitting Saudi monarch — marks a turning point in relations between the two countries.
The king’s agenda in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was full of important issues, ranging from stabilizing international oil markets to a political settlement in Syria. The most significant development was however the signing the arms agreements.
Indeed, after about a decade of negotiation, there is finally a breakthrough in military relations between Moscow and Riyadh.
Russia is the world’s second-largest arms supplier after the US, and is seeking to cement its position in new markets. From 2012 to 2016, Russia was responsible for almost a quarter of global arms exports, second to America’s 33 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s vast defense budget in 2016 made it by far the largest military spender in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world, according to SIPRI.
Until now, the US has been the major supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia and stands to reap additional deals worth tens of billions of dollars following President Donald Trump’s visit to the Kingdom in May.
Russia and Saudi Arabia signed an “agreement for military and technological cooperation” in 2008, but since then Moscow has been trying to penetrate Saudi Arabia’s arms market without any success.
But Russian defense companies are intensifying their efforts to capture business from the Saudis, while the Kingdom is pushing to diversify its sources of arms suppliers. Indeed, localizing over 50 percent of its defense spending is one of the main objectives of Saudi Vision 2030.
Russia’s entry into the Saudi arms market would be a major diplomatic breakthrough for Moscow. It would also give Russian weapons a huge international publicity boost.
Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding to buy S-400 air defense systems from Russia. The two countries also signed a preliminary agreement to help the Kingdom in its efforts to develop its own military industries, according to a statement from state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).

Moscow may be able to supply the Kingdom with weapons that the US refuses to sell, such as long-range missiles, unmanned planes, and satellite and nuclear technology.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi


SAMI said that the procurement was “based on the assurance of the Russian party to transfer the technology and localize the manufacturing and sustainment of these armament systems in the Kingdom.”
Even if a weapons deal does take place between Moscow and Riyadh, though, Russia is unlikely to replace the US as the Kingdom’s main arms supplier any time soon. America will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.
Yet Russia — and China — may be able to supply the Kingdom with weapons that the US refuses to sell, such as long-range missiles, unmanned planes, and satellite and nuclear technology.
Indeed, various reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has shown an active interest in the Russian planes used in Syria, including Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters, and Su-34 fighter-bombers. 
Washington has refused to supply the F-35 — its own fifth-generation aircraft — to any Arab country, in order to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge.” Saudi Arabia might therefore regard the Russian planes as a bargaining chip in negotiations with America.
Saudi Arabia has previously expressed interest in ballistic missiles from Russia, particularly the Iskander system. But there is also a possibility that Russian companies could help the Kingdom develop its own ballistic missile capability.
Yet Saudi-Russian military relations are still clouded by numerous complexities, and it remains unclear whether the preliminary agreements signed on Thursday will result in concrete deals. What is certain is that these relations are on the verge of positive developments.

• Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He can be reached on Twitter @nasertamimi and email: [email protected]