Russian Arms for Saudi May Have Big Side Benefits

Saudi Arabia's defence market, one of NATO's 'core four' countries, may soon become a much more competitive account.


According to Kommersant, a leading Russian daily, Saudi Arabia has offered to give the Russian Federation major arms contracts if the Kremlin reduces its cooperation with Iran.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan apparently suggested the trade-off during a mid-July meeting in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, amplifying a comment made by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal during an earlier visit in February.

"The Gulf States require some independent means of repulsing a conventional attack from Iran."

Bandar, as Saudi Arabia's long-time former ambassador to the US, played a major role in ramping up American arms exports to his country in the 1980s – an irony that ought not to go unnoticed in Washington.

FOR MUTUAL BENEFIT

In April and May, a group of senators (all democrats) threatened to block billions of dollars in US arms sales to the Saudis unless the kingdom raised oil production by one million barrels a day.

After introducing a resolution of disapproval on the sale, Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters, "Our economy is heading south. That is the highest priority, not the Saudis getting top-notch weapons."

To put a nicer spin on the measure, Schumer sent this message to the Saudis: "You need our arms, but we need you to cooperate and not strangle American consumers," and asked rhetorically, "If you don't help us, why should we be helping you?"

Even aside from economic considerations, there are at least two strategic answers. The Saudi arms deal first made news in July 2007, when the Bush administration proposed an arms sales package for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Gulf states that could be worth as much as $20bn over ten years, alongside an additional $30bn package for Israel.

The administration had earlier criticised Saudi Arabia for allegedly supporting Sunni Arabs in Iraq who were opposed to the US-backed unification government.

In defending the deal from domestic criticism, Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns stated "There are no formal quid pro quos in this, but it figures that we would want our friends to be supportive of Iraq."

You don't have to like the administration's handling of Iraq to acknowledge that there might be some merit to this deal. More critically, US officials stressed at the time that improvements in Iran's military capabilities required the other Gulf nations to upgrade their military capabilities.

DEFENCE OR OFFENCE?

The strategic objective was and still is, to give the Gulf States some independent means of repulsing a conventional attack from Iran, which argues with some justification that it wants nuclear weapons to deter Israel and the US – although nuclear weapons could equally well provide escalatory cover for other aggressive actions.

"Diversification confers practical negotiating advantages, as well as some operational benefits."

Of course, Iran is clearly more capable now than in 2007, if for no other reason than its regional ballistic missile capability.

Consistent with this last point, Saudi Arabia expressed particular interest in Russian air defence systems (ADS), Kommersant reported. ADS and missile technology have long been strengths in the Russian defence portfolio. Moreover, the Saudis apparently also mentioned helicopters and tanks as categories ripe for upgrades.

The Saudi army has never been strong in rotary aviation, and although its armour inventory contains over 300 M1A2 Abrams tanks, the majority of its vehicles are older French and American models. Of course, if any nation can afford to field multiple models in a weapons class, it's Saudi Arabia, which ran a current account surplus of over $100bn in 2007.

Moreover, diversification confers practical negotiating advantages, as well as some operational benefits that partly offset its logistical costs. Bandar made a point of telling Russian news agencies that "Saudi Arabia strives to have varied sources of arms," and Russia's unique selling proposition is that, unlike the US, it actually has some constructive leverage with Iran insofar as it is helping the Iranians build a nuclear reactor.

In short, even if the US and its Western European allies can retain their collective grip on the Saudi aviation and naval markets, ground weaponry is increasingly up for grabs.

No matter how it's sliced, Russia appears to be one step closer to its goal of being an all-around player in the high-stakes Middle East poker game – and army technology will probably be its buy-in.