Around 4 years ago, Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdul Aziz paid a historic state visit, the first by a ruling Saudi monarch, to Russia, which heralded a shift in global power structures according to The Guardian.
King Salman’s visit in 2017 witnessed the most significant Saudi interest in the Russian military industry, specifically in the S-400 Triumph missile system despite the Saudi interest in Lockheed Martin’s THAAD missile defense system. In 2018, Saudi ordered the American anti-ballistic system with a deadline delivery in 2023.
A couple of years before that, in 2015, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince, visited Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin in a rare visit of a high ranking Saudi official. Numerous agreements were signed and the Joint Military Committee was activated. Very little is known about the committee and its activities. However, it is mentioned every time a new agreement is inked, or potential opportunities are discussed.
Saudi Arabia has always imported its arms from the US and other Western countries with a few exceptions when the Kingdom has bought arms from China, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.
The latest Saudi-Russian military agreement was signed last August between the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, and his Russian counterpart, Colonel General Alexander Fomin.
Why has Saudi Arabia diversified into multiple military partners? Which countries? What are the prospects?
US EXITING THE REGION
A few days ago, the US has removed its Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia, which is run by the Americans in an air base near Riyadh. Other Patriot batteries, that are run by Saudi Air Defense, will continue their role without any change.
“The talks with Iran are on hold right now. The US seems to be leaving the Middle East gradually without solving major issues with Iran, especially the nuclear program and ballistic missiles. This is confusing to allies, leaving them with more vagueness about the American intentions,” political analyst Abed Ahmad told Majalla.
“The sudden American moves in the region are hard to understand. The quick withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by pulling the Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia gives signals of less commitment towards its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia. The US is giving more weight to the confrontation with China and Russia, and less attention to the Arabian Gulf. Both China and Russia have close relations with the Kingdom, but they can be considered allies like the US. How long will this continue?” he added.
It is true that there are differences over the US priorities in the region. The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been postponed, a sign showing that a better mutual understanding should be reached over priorities of the two allies.
“Saudi will not turn its back to the US overnight and neither will the US. The Saudi administration is still exploring military opportunities with Russia. Saudi Deputy Defense Minister stated clearly that he discussed with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, and ‘explored ways to strengthen military and defense cooperation’. Saudi is not part of the NATO and has the freedom to expand the circle of its military partners without obligations. No big arm deals have been signed with Russia so far. Things take time to happen,” concluded Ahmed.
THE CHINESE DRAGON
In 1985, Saudi Arabia bought the Chinese “East Wind” intermediate range missiles. When the deal came to light in 1988, the Kingdom refused American pressure and condemnation of the deal. China later produced an updated version of the missiles; however, Saudi did not show interest in updating its arsenal, and continued to buy weapons from Western sources.
“China is not presenting itself as global military power despite the huge budget of national defense. Unlike Russians who have the guts, China is unlikely to challenge the US by selling arms to the latter’s traditional allies in the Middle East, at least for the time being,” Hadi Ghassan, an Arab researcher told Majalla, when asked about turning to China as a reliable source of weapons.
“In addition, China is not promoting weapons that would attract Saudi attention such as a sophisticated missile defense system. The Kingdom needs to protect its people and borders from drones and other missiles that are continuously launched by Houthi militias, the de facto rulers of most of the northern parts of Yemen and allies of Tehran. China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trade partner. However, this does not apply to the military,” he added.
Saudi Arabia’s current security threats include Yemen’s Houthi militias, Iran-backed militias in Yemen and Iraq, the Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and terrorism. The gradual American withdraw from the Middle East is leaving a security vacuum in the region that needs to be filled before the fragile balance is shaken.
Russia has special relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries believe the Russians can play a positive role in the region. However, Russia is the biggest foreign weapons provider for Iran, a matter that will make it hard for Saudis to consider Russia a military ally that has the same status as Saudi - American relations.
“In the near future, the map of Saudi’s military alliances is unlikely to change easily. However, diversification and having more partners are crucial in properly dealing with the military threats on the strategic level. If Russians and Saudis agree to expand the military cooperation, Russia would open a new market for its weapons and gain new ground in the GCC region, and Saudi Arabia will increase its arm suppliers, have more options in addressing pressing military needs, and create balance in case Americans decide to leave forever!” concluded Hadi Ghassan.
On another side, in response to the growing threats, the Kingdom has approved the establishment of the General Authority for Defense Development (GADD) a few days ago. The newly-formed body will be focused on the strategic policies governing the Saudi defense technology sector. GADD is expected to play an important role in the Saudi endeavors to produce half of its military hardware needs by 2030, and work closely with the General Authority of Military Industries (GAMI), which was founded in 2017 to produce arms locally.