UNITED NATIONS Saudi Arabia, a traditionally authoritarian regime that recently held the first Western-style local elections in its 73-year history, is trying to break new ground by turning to Russia for arms purchases.
As one of the world’s biggest single weapons buyers, the family-run kingdom has militarily depended on the United States, which has supplied over 80 billion dollars in arms since 1950.
According to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Moscow is now getting ready to clinch its "first major defense contract" with Saudi Arabia, a fervently Islamic and avowedly anti-Communist and pro-Western country.
The Saudi decision to diversify its sources of weaponry comes at a time when Washington has downgraded its military relationship by relocating over 6,000 U.S. troops, from Saudi Arabia to neighboring Qatar.
"There are clear strains in the U.S.-Saudi relationship," says Natalie J. Goldring, executive director of the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
"But this story is likely to be more important politically than militarily. The Saudi military is dependent on the United States for its core weapons, as well as for critically important spare parts and training," Goldring told IPS.
Tom Baranauskas, a military analyst covering the Middle East at the Connecticut-based Forecast International, told IPS that the six Arab nations comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are increasingly buying Russian equipment such as missile air defense systems.
There is a major emphasis now on integrating command and control for these states especially air defense to counter Iran, he said.
"The deal with Russia thus could be GCC-related, with the Saudis moving toward commonality with air defense systems such as the S-300s being procured by the UAE," Baranauskas said.
He pointed out that there is also an ongoing major Saudi procurement program worth about 900 million dollars to reequip the country’s National Guard.
This includes negotiations to buy some 1,000 U.S. armored vehicles and 200 Spanish BMR-600 armored personnel carries (APCs), at a value of about 440 million dollars.
"As far as I know, this deal has not been finalized, and I could definitely see the Saudis buying Russian armored cars, especially for a paramilitary force like the National Guard. However, this modernization program may be relying to some extent on U.S. assistance funds, which would make procuring Russian equipment problematic," he added.
The National Guard’s modernization program also includes artillery, for which a contractor has not yet been selected, and the Army is looking at several options for expanding its self-propelled artillery fleet, he said.
Sergei Chemezov, director general of the Russian state-owned Rosoboronexport, was quoted as saying that the proposed deal with Saudi Arabia was part of its strategy to diversify Russia’s arms buyers, away from China and India. Both countries are major buyers of Russian weapons systems.
In 2004, Russia sold unspecified quantities of armored trucks to Riyadh. But current negotiations are said to involve the sale of "lethal equipment", including aircraft, battle tanks and air defense systems, according to Middle East Newsline based in Abu Dhabi.
Russia already sells arms to several Middle Eastern nations, including Iran, Kuwait, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
When Kuwait, another major buyer of U.S. arms, decided to diversify its purchases by buying 600 million to 800 million dollars worth of military equipment from Russia back in 1994, Washington expressed strong reservations.
The U.S. State Department said it placed a premium on "interoperability of weapons systems for maximum efficiency and capability." A mix of Russian and American weapons would undermine this, it warned.
Despite price fluctuations in the world oil market, Saudi Arabia has maintained an average annual military budget of over 19 billion dollars.
But skyrocketing oil prices rising from about 40 dollars per barrel in 2004 to a high of 55 dollars last week could trigger an increase in arms purchases by the kingdom.
Goldring told IPS that Russia’s willingness to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia is not a new phenomenon. "To date, however, their desire to sell has far outweighed their actual success," she added.
There has been significant press attention to supposed Russian inroads in the Middle Eastern arms bazaar. However, the United States remains the region’s dominant supplier, Goldring said.
In recent years, for example, Russia’s chief customers in the region have been Algeria, the UAE and Yemen, each accounting for roughly 400 million dollars in weapons agreements over a four-year period, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington, which tracks U.S. weapons sales overseas.
By contrast, during the same period, the United States reached agreements to sell 7.1 billion dollars worth of weapons to the UAE, 6.2 billion dollars to Egypt, 5.1 billion dollars to Israel, and 2.7 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia.
Goldring said the United States continues to dominate the international weapons trade, as well as weapons sales to the Middle East region.
In recent years, according to CRS, the United States has accounted for more than 75 percent of arms sales agreements to the region, while the Russians have been limited to less than 10 percent of that market.
"I expect the United States to continue to dominate weapons sales to the region for the foreseeable future," Goldring said.
But she pointed out that Russia has substantial financial and political incentives to broaden and deepen its access to international weapons markets.
China and India account for a reported 75-80 percent of Russia’s recent weapons sales. "In the end, however, this fight over market share obscures the most important issue. The United States and the other major weapons suppliers continue to exercise little restraint in selling advanced weapons to the highest bidder," Goldring added.
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