On August 24th of this year, Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman and Russian Colonel General Alexander Fomin signed a “military cooperation agreement” at the International Military-Technical Forum (ARMY 2021), a military arms expo, hosted in Moscow. While the contents of the deal itself remain undisclosed, it is likely to involve the sale of advanced Russian weapons systems that have proven their worth in Syria. It may also involve as well as other forms of technical cooperation and perhaps the deepening of institutional and diplomatic ties as well.
This isn’t the first such agreement between the two countries, of course. In 2017, Russia signed a deal to sell $3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including the rights for local manufacture of Kornet-EM anti-tank missiles, TOS-1A multi rocket launchers, AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers and Kalashnikov rifles and ammunitions. For the most part, however, those deals never matured into actual transfers of weapons or technologies.
This new deal, however, seems different, if only because the broader geopolitical context of Saudi-Russian relations is also different. Simply put, over the last five years or so the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have grown apart to the point where Riyadh no longer feels that it can count on the United States to underwrite its security. The decades-old relationship based on oil-for-security has been seriously degraded. In part, this is due to hydrocarbons. The U.S. is no longer dependent on Persian Gulf oil and gas, the majority of which now flows to China and other Asian countries. But if the petroleum-based foundation of the US-Saudi relationship has crumbled, it is only part of the picture. Other factors, unrelated to oil – differences over the Arab Spring, human rights, the civil war in Syria, the war in Yemen, the United States pivot to the Indo-Pacific and, perhaps most tellingly, the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a diplomatic accord with Iran – have also undermined the relationship. Throw in very recent development such as the Biden administration’s recent high-profile “recalibration” of the Saudi relationship, the recent drawdown of US troops from the region, the withdrawal of eight Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, as well as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the Kingdom itself and it is little wonder that Riyadh fears that the old oil-for-security deal is now definitively dead and that the United States simply cannot any longer be counted on to underwrite the security of the kingdom.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Riyadh would seek both weapons and diplomatic support from an extra-regional power like Russia. The attractions are obvious. Russian arms are high quality and of proven value on regional battlefields. Russian military agreements have fewer restrictions on technology sharing and weapons use than American ones, a tempting offer considering some of the existing concerns surrounding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil conflict. Given that Saudi Arabia currently purchases 79% of its weapons from the United States, the Russian arms deal will reduce both its dependency on the U.S. arms industry and the influence that this dependency has conferred on successive American administrations. And Russian diplomatic support comes with few strings attached – at least with respect to issues of human rights and democracy. From a Saudi perspective, given the perceived fickleness of Washington’s support, enhanced security cooperation with the Russians seems like that rational thing to do.
Nor is it surprising that some in Washington would be alarmed by Russia’s encroachment on what has historically been American geopolitical territory. But are these concerns valid? Should Washington view the developing Saudi-Russian security relationship as a danger? Or is it instead an opportunity?
Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but there is a good case to be made that these developments are also a net positive for the United States. If one begins from the double-barreled premise that the region remains important to the United States and that it is a key American interest to prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon in the Persian Gulf, then this Russian-Saudi defense cooperation should be welcomed rather than feared. Consider the background conditions. In the last few years, an Israeli-Arab coalition to counter-balance Iran’s continuing efforts to achieve regional hegemony has formed. This has most famously taken the form of the Abraham Accords. But it has also involved a healing of rifts within the Arab world, especially those between Qatar and its GCC neighbors. And in some ways most significantly, it has involved the emergence of Israel as a kind of “cornerstone balancer” working ever more closely with its Arab partners to blunt Iran’s regional efforts to dominate the region.
From a U.S. perspective, this must be seen as a positive development. There is now, at least in embryonic form, a regional coalition that can balance Iran without much direct U.S. involvement. In turn, this means that the United States can devote more of its resources to balancing China’s bid to establish itself as the dominant power in the Western Pacific, without jeopardizing its residual interests in the Middle East.
But in order to succeed, this new balancing coalition needs access to advanced weapons – and they need either to produce them indigenously or acquire them from a variety of suppliers in order not to be held hostage to the domestic politics of the United States. This is where the Russian-Saudi military cooperation agreement comes in. And this is why it is consistent with Washington’s basic interests in the region.
But what about the prospect of greater Russian involvement in the region? Shouldn’t this concern Washington? In a word, No. Russian interest and ambitions in the region threaten neither U.S. interests nor the evolving balance of power. In fact, quite the opposite.
Russian interests in the region are significant but actually quite limited. They include the desire to sell more weapons to the region for economic reasons, the bid for continuing relevance in important regions of the world, and the need for relative tranquility in the Middle East in order both to avert spillover of regional conflict into Russia’s security space and to facilitate Moscow’s broader trade relations with the region. They are also related to Russian efforts to shape the global energy market in ways favorable to Moscow. All of these converge on an interest in the evolution of a stable regional order in the Middle East – one dominated by neither Iran nor the US nor anyone else. Moscow’s preferred version of such an order would involve an ambitious “collective security” arrangement in the Gulf, involving collaborative efforts to resolve the region’s fundamental conflict and maintain international peace and security. But there is no reason to believe that it would not be satisfied with a less-institutionalized balance of power in the region, providing such a balance served its interests.
Viewed in this light, neither the Saudi-Russian deal nor greater Russian involvement in the region is a cause for concern. In fact, if U.S. interests amount to preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in what remains an important part of the world, then this deal—even if it includes what amounts to little more than a marginally enhanced Russian presence in the region—should be welcome in Washington.
Whether or not it will be is another matter.
Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations at Macalester College specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars.
Kai Perket is an independent national security expert.