National day celebrations have become a crucial element in the ongoing construction of Saudi Arabia’s national narrative, highlighting the centrality of the ruling family and its legacy in the establishment of the state.
Russia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as many other states, seemingly owe much of their mutual and other international engagement to the domestic and foreign policy imperatives of monetization, economization, and militarization. Monetization and economization refer to the joint ventures, co-financing, and co-development of new technologies, which lower costs, create jobs, and establish new export markets. Militarization refers to the symbiosis between naval bases and the extension of military influence into civilian life through economic opportunities such as trade and investment, local military or security contracts, and access to resources. In many cases the two domains overlap.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Declaration of Strategic Partnership with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2018 for political, security, economic, and cultural cooperation. The Russian Direct Investment Fund is working with the Emirati sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Petroleum on a number of projects, including the development of Siberian oil fields. Russian defense firm Rostec and the UAE Ministry of Defense plan to economize and invest in each other’s military-industrial strength by co-developing a fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jet. This could begin to shift some of the well-established patterns of arms sales between Western suppliers and Gulf states in support of the geopolitical interests of the manufacturers.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund also set up a representative office in Saudi Arabia in 2019 to explore opportunities beyond the $1.3 billion signed by Putin during his visit to the kingdom that year. Saudi Arabia has signed a contract with Rosoboronexport for the domestic production of TOS-1A heavy flamethrower systems based on the Soviet T-72 battle tank. Saudi Arabian Military Industries has also licensed the 9M133 Kornet, an antitank guided missile, and is looking to license modern AK rifle variants, such as the AK-103. Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company, successfully passed two qualifying stages in Saudi Arabia’s tender of two high-capacity nuclear power plants in 2020. These are to be located in the kingdom and are most likely to be fueled by uranium extracted and enriched within Saudi Arabia. There were plans for 16 nuclear reactors to be built by 2032, although construction may be slowed by a more rapid transition to renewables.
Russia and the kingdom appear to be in ongoing talks over the S-400 missile defense system, which may simply aim to ensure the delivery of seven Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, batteries for delivery by the United States between 2023 and 2026. If it is a serious negotiation, it could have significant consequences for regional security and U.S.-Saudi relations. The lack of interoperability with U.S. systems will make it less effective, and deploying an integrated aerospace defense system with the S-400 included would multiply procurement costs and dependence on the Kremlin. The deal could raise the potential for human error and lead the United States to invoke the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which would further undermine U.S. arms sales to the kingdom. It could also affect Saudi relations with allies, mostly NATO members who have received delivery of the United States’ F-35 fighter jet and do not wish to compromise its stealth capabilities by placing it in close proximity to observations made by the S-400 system.
Militarization is also occurring, through assets such as Russia’s naval facility in Port Sudan, which it signed a contract for in 2020. Russia’s presence in Port Sudan (supported by access to Sudanese airspace) builds on its experience from its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia, the largest supplier of arms to Africa, is reportedly planning to use the Port Sudan facility to expand its involvement in local resource extraction. If confirmed by the interim Sudanese government, Russia could assume responsibility for modernizing the Sudanese military and help to defend Sudan against air or maritime assaults. Importantly, the deal would realize Putin’s ambition to project force into the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean, something Russian Tsar Nicholas II tried to achieve when he sent the gunboat Gilyak to the Gulf, without aggressive intent, to assert that the Gulf waters were open to vessels of all countries. This and other Russian initiatives were considered a challenge to British maritime control in the Indian Ocean and led to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which formalized their respective spheres of influence relating to Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.
Russian calculations are in line with a trend of growing foreign naval interest in Djibouti, where the United States, China, France, Italy, and Japan all have bases. The Saudis are finalizing a deal for a base in Djibouti after signing a security agreement in 2016 aiming to reduce Houthi influence and attacks across the Bab el-Mandeb strait. In some cases, these same states have recently developed bases in the Gulf. The European Maritime Security Mission became operational in 2020, based out of Camp de la Paix in Abu Dhabi, and includes officers from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. China’s “strategic strongpoint,” by owning and operating the port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, could be turned from an economic installation into a naval base depending on China’s local concerns and the regional security dynamic. Calculations vary but Gwadar is already seen to be serving China’s burgeoning overseas and internal socioeconomic interests. The increasing use of “private” military companies, such as Russia’s Wagner Group and Reflex Responses, also draws attention to the interplay among regional opportunity, monetization, militarization, and diplomacy.
Motivated by the need to project force during the Yemen conflict, and compete with Qatar and Turkey by penetrating into the Horn of Africa to secure its maritime interests, the UAE has invested heavily in ports and bases along the northern coast of the Horn of Africa. Having been forced out of Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal concession by presidential decree in 2018, the UAE built a port and expanded an airstrip in Assab, Eritrea before dismantling it after the Emiratis began their withdrawal from the Yemen conflict. The UAE had plans to build a military base in Berbera in the autonomous (but not internationally recognized) region of Somaliland, before agreeing to turn it into a civilian airport in 2019, according to the region’s president. Meanwhile, Dubai’s DP World is expanding and developing the port of Berbera.
All this maritime redeployment still leaves the UAE with military influence in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, and Bab el-Mandeb through the takeover of Socotra, relations with Saudi Arabia and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden, and an air base on Mayun Island. The UAE is also building up influence in Somaliland through a new UAE Trade Office, which may boost cooperation on anti-piracy and counterterrorism initiatives. Abu Dhabi invested $336 million to expand the port of Bosaso in 2018 in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. The UAE, like Russia, has been involved in training military forces. For example, from 2014 until Somali security forces seized millions of dollars and temporarily held an Emirati plane in 2018, it trained hundreds of Somali troops. Turkey has had a base, Camp Turksom, and a defense university in Mogadishu, Somalia, since 2017. While the Qatar crisis has abated for the time being, the economic and strategic rationales of pivoting around the Arabian Peninsula by leveraging relations in the Horn of Africa and projecting force into the Red Sea remain. A Red Sea alliance was launched by Saudi Arabia in 2020, with the participation of Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan, which has been reorientated around security issues, such as piracy and smuggling. But it does not address or reconcile political and security perspectives held by states not included in the group.
While some missile defense and new military base deals may not come to pass, these increasingly international and regional strategic interests in the Gulf and Red Sea underscore the challenge to Western interests and the status quo. The history of great power rivalry in the Indian Ocean as well as contestation and militarization around the Strait of Hormuz highlight the future risks in the environs of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. A fresh look at an integrated Red Sea framework and associated diplomacy could help avoid a security dilemma resulting from overlapping spheres of economic interest and militarization. In the meantime, the UAE, Horn of Africa states, and some substate entities in Somalia appear well placed to benefit from intensifying competition.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University.
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