On August 24, during the International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2021,” Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman and his Russian counterpart, Colonel General Alexander Fomin, signed an agreement aimed at developing joint military cooperation between the two countries. Khalid bin Salman, a brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, earlier held talks with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu to explore ways to strengthen military and defense cooperation.
While the text of the deal has not been disclosed, the agreement is consistent with the Saudis’ long-standing approach of seeking relative autonomy through building a number of sourcing arrangements with key international actors and accumulating diverse international partnerships rather than relying exclusively on the United States. U.S. diplomacy with Iran and its response to the Arab uprisings have created particularly fertile ground for Saudi-U.S. tensions to surface in recent years. The Saudis were particularly dismayed over U.S. inaction concerning Egypt when President Hosni Mubarak, a Saudi ally, was ousted in Arab Spring unrest. In Syria, the Saudis hoped for, but did not secure, robust U.S. military intervention to prevent Iranian forces from “winning” strategic territory through their alliance with President Bashar al-Assad and tacit alliance with Russia. President Donald J. Trump’s repeated calls to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria exacerbated the Saudis’ sense of frustration. Former President Barack Obama unintentionally encouraged the kingdom to more actively pursue its own national security interests by negotiating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with limited consultation from the Gulf Cooperation Council states and by calling Gulf allies “free riders” in 2016. Trump’s stated readiness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fanned the flames of Saudi anxiety and opposition to the JCPOA.
The suspension in January of arms sales that had been negotiated with the former Trump administration, renewed U.S. interest in the JCPOA, and continued fallout after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and over the Yemen conflict are sources of ongoing discontent in the bilateral relationship. While the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. softened its approach on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in April, by June the Saudis grew concerned when the United States removed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that had been temporarily deployed in the kingdom in 2019 after drones and missiles targeted oil installations. The seven THAAD batteries the Saudis are purchasing for missile defense that are scheduled for delivery between 2023 and 2026 will most likely be delivered to the kingdom, but there is more uncertainty over offensive munitions from the United States. The Biden administration ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen in February, has blocked the sale of precision-guided munitions, and may yet extend the suspension of other offensive weapons, such as fighter jets and drones. But Congress, for its part, has never successfully blocked a proposed arms sale by use of a joint resolution of disapproval of the proposed transfer of arms. The 2019 congressional action, ultimately vetoed by Trump (and reintroduced in January without further congressional action) may instead affect the timing and composition of arms sales pursued by the White House. In the minds of many Saudis, the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan – although the circumstances are very different from those of the Gulf – raises further questions about U.S. commitments to Saudi Arabia and may highlight the advantages of Saudi security partnerships with other powerful global or regional actors.
In light of these accumulating sources of uncertainty in its relationship with the United States, and forced to assume a greater defense burden, Saudi Arabia has adopted a two-pronged approach. First, it has sought to mend fences with the United States, including by leading mediation efforts with Qatar before and at the Al Ula GCC summit in January, and the kingdom began more serious bilateral discussions with Iran in April. The latter action, while driven by Saudi interest calculations regarding Iran, also seems aimed at placating a Biden team consumed with its Iran diplomacy. Second, it has sought to expand its energy cooperation and security relations with Russia in response to the ambiguity caused during the Trump administration and uncertainty caused by congressional and executive branch action during the Biden administration. Riyadh quite likely communicated to Washington the shape and form of the latest agreement with Russia due to concerns about being caught up in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and possibly to underscore Saudi interest in reverting to the status quo ante in U.S.-Saudi relations. Khalid bin Salman visited Washington in July and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley. The Saudi-Russia deal is bound to be limited by the continuing strength of U.S.-Saudi relations, including the 2020 U.S.-Saudi Arabia Strategic Dialogue, which draws these states together against common threats in the region, continues security and intelligence cooperation, proposes technical work on infrastructure, and promises other forms of cooperation. Large-scale U.S. military and civilian training missions in Riyadh and long-term cooperative and consultative programs similarly promise to constrain the scope of any Saudi cooperation with Russia.
Other sources of constraint on the deal include Russia’s global interactions, which have historically been predisposed to great power competition and maintaining or expanding its spheres of influence. There has been a long history of ideological and religious incompatibility between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the state level as well as mutual mistrust. The kingdom played a pivotal role in supporting the mujahedeen against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And Saudi jihadi forces went on to fight in other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, including the second Chechen war, from which President Vladimir Putin drew political capital from his handling of the conflict. Intent on restoring Soviet-era status and prestige, Putin may harbor long-festering suspicions about the “oil market machinations” in the early 1990s that may have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia and Saudi Arabia are bound to clash again on oil policy in the coming years as they did in 2020, and they maintain divergent views on Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine.
Cooperation is nevertheless appealing to both Saudi Arabia and Russia on a number of levels as they search for pragmatic deals based on common interests. The agreement reflects the Saudi intention to maintain friendly relations with Moscow (and Beijing) with a Saudi focus on realizing the potential of developing its military-industrial base. It serves to build relations with the Kremlin at a time when Russia appears to be returning to the Middle East primarily through its intervention in Syria and through relations with Iran. Although, if Syria rejoins the Arab League or normalizes relations with Saudi Arabia, it may give the kingdom renewed influence in Syria and thereby remove one of a few policy areas where the Saudis have sought to engage Moscow as a matter of priority. Putin is eager to compete more effectively in the region’s arms sales market given China’s inroads with armed drones and benefit in cases where the United States may limit, suspend, or cancel drone sales. Moscow also seeks to consolidate its regional position in other ways by exploring opportunities in the Gulf and Red Sea.
In the context of Saudi Vision 2030, which seeks to localize up to 50% of its defense expenditure and grow non-oil sectors, the deal gives Saudi Arabia theoretical parity with the UAE on defense relations with Russia and an edge over other Arab partners, as well as Iran, whose representatives also attended the forum. It does so within the parameters of its own military requirements, the nature of evolving regional threats, and its existing relationship with the United States. The Saudi-Russian deal is therefore unlikely to match the strategic partnership that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Putin signed on June 1, 2018. The UAE-Russia deal pledges cooperation across politics, security, economy, and culture, and includes regular consultations at the foreign minister level. It also includes the joint development of the fifth-generation “Checkmate” fighter jet with Rostec that was announced in February 2017. Though, it remains to be seen whether the full menu of lofty UAE-Russia goals will, in fact, be realized.
A closer Saudi-Russian relationship certainly adds credibility to Russia’s security-centric offerings, enhances the prospect of Rosatom’s participation in constructing nuclear power plants in the kingdom, and supports the Kremlin’s proposals for Gulf security to undermine and push back on U.S. influence in the region. In this deal, amid a U.S. gear change about policing the world and potentially constraining arms sales to the kingdom, and the current Gulf milieu prizing joint cooperation, Saudi Arabia is positioning itself to build greater interdependence with Russia. If the proposed defense cooperation with Russia becomes real, Saudi leaders will have to determine whether any marked increase in strategic autonomy the kingdom may draw from it is worth the likelihood of significantly weakened defense and intelligence cooperation with the United States and, potentially, other Western countries. Given the stakes and interests that still tie Saudi Arabia to the United States and the West, it seems unlikely the Saudis will take any definitive steps that would jeopardize those ties with Washington. The more likely course will be continued, measured hedging as Saudi Arabia gauges U.S. domestic pressures and Biden administration steps affecting the bilateral relationship.