Russia-Saudi Relations: The Kingdom and the Bear

Russia-Saudi Relations: The Kingdom and the Bear

Saudi Arabia's possible purchase of at least $2 billion of Russian military equipment has the potential to be the most significant Russian arms deal in the Middle East since the Soviet Union transferred SA-2s to Nasser's Egypt. By all indications, it seems that the two countries have reached an agreement for the arms transfer, after a two-year negotiation period. The deal may be part of a larger process that leads to a significant realignment in the external relations of both parties.

The arms transfer agreement, which covers a broad spectrum of weapons, is guided by the agreement on cooperation in military technology that was initiated during a visit of Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin to Riyadh in 2007, and later signed by the two countries in 2008. According to Russian sources, Saudi Arabia may purchase up to 150 helicopters (30 Mi-35 attack helicopters and 120 Mi-17 transport helicopters), more than 150 T-90S tanks, around 250 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and "several dozen" air defense systems (including possibly the S-400 Triumf). Contracts for the sales of the helicopters, tanks and IFVs -- worth a combined $2 billion -- seem imminent, with more negotiations required on the air defense systems. In all, the Saudi market may absorb up to $7 billion worth of Russian equipment in the future.

The precise timing for the deal seems to have been guided by the worsening Iran nuclear crisis and the increasing enmity between the Iranians and the Saudis. The Saudi defense requirements also come at a time when Russian newspapers are awash with reports of the monetary loss -- in the billion-dollar range -- that Moscow must incur on the sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran. That deal has been stalled due to pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv. Clearly, handsome compensation seems to be in the pipeline from Saudi quarters.

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