The King of Saudi Arabia flew to Moscow this week for a series of high level talks with Russia’s leader. The meetings resulted in agreements between the two countries for cooperation in the energy sector and Saudi military manufacturing. The bilateral thaw was further sweetened by Saudi patronage of a very expensive Russian export.
In another success for Rosoboronexport, Rostec, and Almaz Antey, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum to buy the S-400 air defense system. This makes the Gulf monarchy the latest customer for what’s fast becoming a favorite among countries looking to protect their infrastructure from ballistic missiles.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud arrived in the Russian capital on the evening of October 4 with an entourage of relatives, ministers, and servants. The occasion had no shortage of pomp and President Vladimir Putin received the visiting monarch in the Kremlin the following day.
King Salman ascended the throne in 2015 and his reign has been marked by a brutal war against the Houthis of Yemen and an economic plan called Vision 2030. Both of these efforts were spearheaded by his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has become an indispensable figure responsible for steering the oil kingdom’s foreign policy.
It may appear surprising Saudi Arabia chose to buy Russian arms just months after a huge deal with Washington, DC that could be worth $110 billion in the next several years. But the order for the S-400 is a specific purchase and accompanies smaller contracts for rocket artillery, anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles.
Although it has flourished because of its alliance with the US, Saudi Arabia’s armed forces, and the National Guard under the royal family’s direct control, have always sought other suppliers. From the 1980s onward Saudi Arabia bought billions worth of arms from China, France, Germany, and the UK. In 2017 Saudi Arabia reorganized its state-owned factories to launch Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI) for building indigenous equipment, including drones.
The value of two S-400 batteries, based on the amount publicized by Turkey, is $2.5 billion. India is on the waiting list for its S-400’s as well in an agreement worth $5 billion. The Saudis never announced how many batteries they wanted to purchase. Coupled with the smaller orders, this Saudi-Russia package should be worth less compared to the bloated contracts with the US.
Saudi Arabia has endured repeated Scud missile strikes from Yemen, including unsuccessful attacks on Mecca and Riyadh. The S-400 could work better than the kingdom’s existing Patriot SAMs. The rest of the Russian weapons seem destined for the ground forces who’ve taken a beating in Yemen.
It’s safe to assume this deal with Russia is both a diplomatic gesture and a means to cover gaps in the Saudi arsenal.
Another deadly piece of hardware ordered by the Saudis is the TOS-1A, a rocket artillery system mounted on a tank chassis. It’s suited for saturating fortifications with high explosive thermobaric rockets. The TOS-1A proved a success in Iraq and Syria and for the Saudis to deploy it in Yemen would multiply its firepower beyond towed and self-propelled howitzers.
Saudi troops already fight with the AK-103, an upgraded assault rifle based on the original AK-47/AKM, and the deployment of Kornet missiles should prove a welcome alternative to the aging BGM TOW’s being used against Houthi positions. The Kornet-EM consists of two launchers installed on a GAZ Tigr. As for the AGS-30 automatic grenade launcher, its portability is its best feature. It’s still unknown if Russian “assurances” guarantee the transfer of production to Saudi Arabia for the small arms it’s buying.
Just two days after King Salman’s weapons shopping in Russia became news the US’ Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the sale of 44 THAAD launchers to Saudi Arabia is ready for approval.