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Missile defense dilemma for Saudi Arabia

Riyadh caught between the United States and Russia
Published : 20 March 2018

By: Debalina Ghoshal

The Iranian nuclear deal and its missile development programme (despite sanctions), as well as the Yemen crisis where Houthi rebels used ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia targets, have only heightened the necessity for Riyadh to field the most sophisticated missile defense systems.

While the obvious choice is the US missile defense systems, given its close alliance with the United States, last year Saudi Arabia added a twist to its choice. Riyadh operates the US Patriot air and missile defense system (PAC-2), and in 2015 also sought to acquire the more advanced PAC-3. The PAC-3 would have strengthened its ability to defend itself, especially as PAC-2 had become obsolete with limited availability of repair parts.

However, Saudi Arabia was also interested in the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. But the US has been delaying the THAAD delivery, despite the fact that Riyadh desperately needs it to strengthen its defense system further. Not only was Saudi Arabia interested in buying the THAAD interceptors, it also wanted the command and control battle management communications system, as well as satellite capabilities.

This delay continued until in October last year, when Saudi Arabia made a historic move and agreed to take a preliminary look at the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have never really had cordial relations, as Riyadh is an ally of the United States, and Saudi Arabia and Moscow are competing against each other in Syria. While Russia is supporting the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia supports the rebels along with the US. In October 2017, prior to the S-400 deal, King Salman of Saudi Arabia made a visit to Moscow to meet President Vladmir Putin to improve bilateral ties. During the visit, King Salman signed an arms deal with Russia worth $3billion, including the S-400s.

As soon as it was announced Saudi Arabia had agreed to take preliminary look at the Russian S-400s, reports appeared that the US had also approved the sale of the THAAD system to Riyadh in a $15billion deal. The THAAD has already found its place in the Middle East market having been acquired by the UAE and Qatar, however, the Russian S-400s are in play, with countries like Turkey showing interest.

The S-400 deal was not the only arms deal Saudi Arabia had on the cards. The October 2017 visit of Prince Salman to Russia paved the way for possible talks between the two countries on the Syrian crisis. Other cooperation agreements included oil, space and military cooperation.

As for Saudi Arabia, increased and strengthened bilateral relations, especially based on arms and ammunition cooperation such as the S-400 deal with Russia, can not only pave the way for a solution in the Syrian crisis, but also as Riyadh begins to lose ground in Yemen to Iran backed Houthi rebels, Russia, with its close relations with Iran, can play a crucial role to resolve the Yemen crisis.

However, irrespective of whether Saudi Arabia chooses the Russian missile defense system, it is likely to operate the Patriot defense system and also move forward to fielding the THAAD system. In May 2017, Saudi also struck arms deal with the US worth $110 billion to take effect immediately and $350billion for the next 10 years, as a sign of a solidified alliance between the two.

For intercepting shorter range missiles and rocket systems, Saudi Arabia also expressed interest this year in the Israeli Iron Dome air and missile defense system, and the Israeli Trophy Active Protection System, which can intercept and destroy incoming missiles and rockets.

For the US and Russia, Saudi Arabia is a big missile defense system market, especially as the ballistic and cruise missile threat continues to aggravate. Riyadh’s increased defense budget for 2018 at US$56billion will provide a lucrative market for the US and Russia to sell their weapons systems.

Saudi Arabia, post Syria and Yemen and the Iranian nuclear deal, is willing to venture into new weapons systems from new friends. Since 2015 there have been reports that Riyadh and Israel have improved their relations, and interest in Israeli weapons systems is a clear indication toward improved bilateral relations.

The motives to improve relations with Russia and Israel are different. With Israel, the improvement in bilateral ties is a deterrent against the growing regional influence of Iran, while with Russia improved relations are probably seeking help from Russia to mediate a solution in Yemen against Iran. Arms and ammunition deals form an integral component of improved bilateral relations.

Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense issues.

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