Russian S-400 missile system during the Victory parade_2010 by Aleksey Toritsyn

Contested Space: The U.S. loses the Saudi Air-Defence War

Saudi Arabia rocked U.S.-Arabian relations on October 5th, when Riyadh agreed to purchase Russia’s most advanced air defence system, the S400, as Washington appeared to lag behind in authorising a sale of the U.S.’ advanced THAAD system. The purchase agreement came amidst wider cooperation discussions between the two nations, and has dramatically upset the traditional image of Saudi Arabia as an exclusive NATO client state. These developments highlight Saudi Arabia’s transforming foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Russia’s growth into a more influential force in the Middle East, and have raised significant concerns over interoperability and intelligence vulnerabilities for NATO’s forces in the Arabian Peninsular.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Following a day after Saudi Arabia announced a purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems as part of a $3 billion deal, the U.S. State Department announced that it has now authorised a $13.5 billion request from Riyadh to purchase seven Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems.

The THAAD deal, which appears to have been subject to significant clearance delays, was seen as central to a $110 billion weapons procurement bid presented by U.S. President Donald Trump during a relationship-resetting visit to Saudi Arabia in May. The May visit followed several years of divergent U.S.-Saudi policies under former President Obama, with relations between the two nations cooling over Obama’s criticism of Saudi’s questionable stance on human rights.

The U.S. offer was due to furnish Riyadh with an estimated seven (but potentially as high as 44) THAAD batteries, deliverable between 2023 and 2026. Each battery would be comprised of six launchers, with eight missiles per launcher, and would significantly bolster the Kingdom’s anti-missile and air defence capabilities. Such capabilities are critical as Saudi Arabia continues to experience missile attacks into the Kingdom by Iranian-backed Houthi forces in northwestern Yemen.

Despite the THAAD deal, Saudi Arabia announced the S400 procurement deal from Russia during a visit to Moscow by King Salman, in a move that may suggest declining confidence in the Kingdom’s longstanding alliance with Washington and a desire to “hedge bets” through closer ties with Russia. It is unclear at this stage whether Riyadh will still purchase THAAD, although U.S. officials have quickly criticised the purchase, raising concerns that the integration of Russian systems into the predominantly NATO-furnished roster of Saudi hardware. Officials have stated that the integration of the S400 will create new cybersecurity and intelligence vulnerabilities, and may lead to a review of the U.S.’ force posture in the Kingdom.

Complex systems such as THAAD and the S400 typically require training and support contingents from the vendor nation to be deployed to operate alongside the buyer’s military for several years in order to integrate the system and train new crews. Given the sensitivity around high level NATO technologies, the presence of Russian crews in close proximity to THAAD batteries and other U.S. deployments also raises concerns of electronic warfare “eavesdropping” by Moscow.

Turkey also recently surprised NATO by purchasing the S400 in favour of U.S. systems in what appears to have been a signal of Ankara’s increasingly independent foreign policy.  Both sales signal a disturbing slip in U.S. influence in the region in tandem with Moscow’s growing involvement. Some analysts have suggested that Russia has deliberately offered the S400 at a significantly reduced price with the intent to secure a position in a NATO member nation or key ally such as Saudi Arabia, and have offered technology transfers alongside the deal to a degree the U.S. would not consider.

It is also likely that long, drawn out delivery times offered by Washington have taken their toll on Riyadh’s patience at a time when the Kingdom faces conflict along its southern border and increasing regional tensions. Alongside Saudi Arabia’s long-running rivalry with Iran, the recent Gulf Cooperation Council dispute with Qatar and repeated missile strikes from within Yemen have likely added a sense of urgency to Riyadh’s search for a capable anti-missile and air defence system. In this instance, Russia’s less accountable approach to arms sales have likely played a major factor.

Alongside the sale, greater cooperation between the two countries regarding crude oil prices were discussed by Salman and Putin in Moscow, indicating a growing convergence of economic interests driven by a desire to stabilise of OPEC prices.

We may now begin to see Saudi Arabia increasingly lending tacit agreement to Russian actions and moving to pressurise Syrian opposition groups into negotiations with Damascus. With Iran and Syria firmly in Moscow’s orbit and Turkey following closely behind, Washington must now consider whether it can afford to let a key Middle Eastern ally move closer to Russia.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

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