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Russia tries to elbow its way into Saudi Arabia arms club

Key Points
  • Saudis plan to increase military spending nearly 7% in 2017
  • Kingdom ranks among top buyers of U.S. arms exports
Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Houthi positions from the Saudi border with Yemen April 13, 2015.
Faisal Al Nasser | Reuters

Long-time U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is pushing to diversify its source of arms suppliers and the Russians are more than happy to help.

Up to now, American defense companies have been the top beneficiaries of foreign arms sales to Saudi Arabia and stand to reap billions of dollars more with upcoming trip to the kingdom.

Yet Moscow is intensifying efforts to capture business from the Saudis, even as it continues to sell to long-time customers such as India and China.

"The global arms market has changed where Saudi Arabia has explored other arms deals with U.S. competitors in Russia, China as well as Europe," said Melissa Dalton, senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Last week, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Russia's deputy defense minister had a meeting with a top Saudi military official in Moscow. The Russian defense ministry played up the meeting afterward on the government's website with the headline: "Saudi Arabia wants to buy modern Russian armament."

"It often conveys a very strong political message when certain meetings are announced," said Dalton, a former Pentagon official who served as a senior adviser for force planning.

Also, Dalton said the disclosure of Saudi-Russia arms talks follows a strategy sometimes used by Riyadh: highlight alternative suppliers of weapons as a means of getting a better U.S. deal or even approval.

The Saudis plan to increase military spending by nearly 7 percent this year, partly reflecting the war in Yemen and the rising military threat from Iran. The spending, almost 10 percent of the kingdom's gross domestic product, was disclosed in its 2017 budget released in December.

U.S. foreign military sales to the Saudis accounted for just over half of all arms sales to the Near East/South Asia region from 2012 to 2015, representing a whopping $48.5 billion and exceeding the amount sold to Israel during the same period, according to Pentagon figures.

Internationally, the Saudis were the second-largest foreign buyers of U.S. weapons in 2015 after South Korea.

"I have to believe that those defense companies are going to be calling on the procurement office in Riyadh to make sure they don't lose business," said Moody's analyst Jonathan Root, who notes that the five top U.S. defense contractors do business with the Saudis.

Washington's relationship with Riyadh became strained when the Obama administration put a halt to weapon sales and some military support to the desert kingdom due to concerns about possible Saudi war crimes in Yemen. That move led the Saudis to start looking elsewhere for weapons technology, including Russia.

The Trump administration, though, is looking to reset ties with Riyadh.

To underscore his support for the Saudis, Trump's first foreign trip abroad as president will include a visit to the kingdom later this month. He also is expected to visit Israel and the Vatican.

According to Reuters, "tens of billions of dollars" in U.S. arms sales for land, air and sea use could be sold to the Saudis or announced ahead of Trump's trip to the kingdom. It also reported Friday some of the military sales are new while others have been "in the pipeline."

Clearly, Moscow is unlikely to replace Washington as the kingdom's chief arms supplier. American defense firms still dominate when it comes to big-ticket arms sales to the Saudis.

Even so, the Russians appear willing to sell advanced weapons systems that probably wouldn't get approved by the United States due to opposition from Israel and members in Congress.

Indeed, the Saudis previously expressed interest in ballistic missiles from Russia, particularly the Iskander missile system. Back in the 1980s, the Saudis turned to China for advanced ballistic missiles.

"When the Saudis struck that arms deal with China, it was because the United States was not inclined at the time to provide that kind of capability to Saudi Arabia, so they went elsewhere," Dalton said.

At the same time, it's also possible Russians could one day help the Saudis develop a homegrown ballistic missile capability, which is something Iran demonstrated last year when it tested a Zolfaqar solid-fuel missile. Iran previously threatened to use the tactical missile against its rival Israel.

Russia helped Iran build its first civilian nuclear power plant in 2011 and have teamed with them on a second plant. Moscow also offered assistance to the Saudis as they embarked on an ambitious $80 billion plan to build more than a dozen nuclear power plants.

Then again, the Saudis still view Russians with great suspicion given Moscow maintains close ties not only to the kingdom's archrival Iran but another adversary, . Saudi Arabia cut off relations with the Damascus regime back in 2012 and has been a major financier of the anti-Assad rebels. However, Russia has been a leading supplier of military arms to both Tehran and Damascus.

The Saudis also have learned Russia can't always be trusted when it comes to defense technology. Earlier this year, the Kuwaiti press reported Iran's military had learned the Russians essentially threw the Tehran government "under the bus" when selling an air defense system.

The Kuwaiti report indicated that the Russians had provided the Israelis with so-called codes that would allow its planes to appear as friendly, possibly on a defense system known as the S-300. Similarly, the Syrians also were apparently sold the same air defense system, which may explain why Israel was able to fly its warplanes for so many years into Syrian space and defeat air defenses. The S-300 is a surface-to-air missile system developed during the Cold War in the late 1970s but updated and now sometimes compared to Raytheon's Patriot defense system.

Tehran and Damascus reportedly fixed the "codes" issue to make the system less vulnerable. When Israeli warplanes attacked a Syrian military site about two months ago, they encountered anti-aircraft missile fire, according to Syria.

For the Saudis, they have no need for Russian air defense systems; they have some of most advanced U.S.-made equipment, including at least two kinds of Patriot missile defense systems. In fact, the kingdom used the missile interceptors in March to shoot down rockets fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.

The Saudis are looking to buy the Lockheed Martin-made THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system, according to Reuters. The proposed arms deal also is said to include about $1 billion worth of munitions from Raytheon, including armor-piercing warheads and laser-guided bombs.

Also, U.S.-built warships are reportedly being sought by the Saudis. The Saudis, which also have bought warships over the years from France and the U.K., have been beefing up their navy for anti-submarine capability at a time when Iran's navy is becoming more aggressive in the region and testing new submarine technology.