If Saudi Arabia’s reported interest in purchasing weapons and platforms from Russia materialises into firm orders, it would represent a major reorientation of the kingdom’s defence procurement policy. However, Riyadh’s requirement for Russian kit is questionable, raising the possibility that its overtures to Moscow are primarily designed to limit arms exports to Iran.
Reports that Riyadh is interested in Russian defence products began to emerge in June-July, when Saudi delegations attended the Army 2015 exhibition at Kubinka in early June and the IMDS-2015 naval show in St Petersburg a month later. Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman also visited Moscow in mid-June to meet President Vladimir Putin.
According to Russian media reports, the Saudis expressed interest in the Iskander-E tactical ballistic missile system, the Tigr frigate (the export variant of the Russian Navy’s Steregushchy class), air defence systems, the Bal-E coastal defence system with Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, and small submarines.
Saudi Arabia’s requirement for much of this equipment is questionable. It already has air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles and is buying Patriot PAC-3 systems from the United States. While Saudi Arabia may want to acquire shorter-range air defence systems to support its Patriot batteries, the amalgamation of Russian systems into an integrated network could be problematic. Meanwhile, the Tigr is going to face stiff competition from US and European contenders to replace Saudi Arabia’s ageing frigates.
The Iskander-E seems the most likely acquisition if Riyadh cannot obtain the roughly equivalent ATACMS system from the US. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has confirmed the kingdom is considering acquiring the Russian ballistic missile system.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in Russian military products may be designed to influence Moscow’s policy in the Middle East to make it less supportive of the beleaguered Syrian government, which Saudi-backed rebels are trying to overthrow, and persuade it not to sell weapons to Iran.
However, Moscow currently appears to be bolstering – rather than downgrading – its defence ties with Tehran. It has already agreed to supply S-300 long-range air defence systems, although the deal has yet to be finalised. In another sign of improving relations, two Russian Buyan-class patrol boats arrived at the Iranian Caspian Sea port of Bandar Anzali on 10 August.
Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani reportedly visited Russia in July to meet Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Kremlin has denied the visit took place: an unsurprising move given that it would have violated the UN travel ban imposed on Gen Soleimani.
Gen Soleimani commands the Qods Force, which supports Iranian-allied groups across the region, so might be interested in acquiring more Russian guided anti-tank missiles that can be transferred to Iraqi Shia militias to be used against Islamic State vehicle suicide bombs and to Yemen’s Ansar Allah group so it can knock out more Saudi armoured vehicles on the border.