US-Saudi discussions open up a new arms market for Russia

Some Russian analysts believe that the diplomatic tensions witnessed between the United States and Saudi Arabia, due to Washington’s report finding Riyadh guilty of the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, will change the relationship between the two countries, which could be beneficial for Russia.

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With the recent diplomatic tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, many anticipated that serious repercussions would be imposed on the oil-rich country by Washington. Since the election of the new US government under Joe Biden, the US has followed a strict tone when it comes to human rights and the rule of law; a practice that was previously looked over by former US President Donald Trump. Furthermore, as Biden made his first contact with the Kingdom, he chose to return to counterpart-to-counterpart talks with the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, rather than holding discussions with the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) like Trump previously did. In the context of the former, the US’ recent attention towards the case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 came as no surprise.

On October 2, 2018, journalist and columnist for The Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member squad, sometime after 13:00 local time. The fiance of the journalist, who was waiting outside of the Saudi Consulate, called authorities following Khashoggi’s failure to leave the embassy three hours later, in spite of the consulate’s working hours which ended after 15:30 local time. While the Saudi government initially announced that Khashoggi left the consulate through a second gate, Turkish authorities, which were alerted of the situation after Khashoggi’s fiance called a friend of the journalist who is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that investigators have not seen any evidence of Khashoggi leaving the consulate. Eventually, as more evidence was unraveled, more light was shed on the events that took place that day.

During the Trump administration, the Khashoggi case was somewhat looked over by the US in favor of keeping relations with Riyadh in a positive light. However, with the election of Joe Biden as US President, the US attitude towards the case and towards Saudi Arabia has changed. Two weeks ago, the Biden administration declassified an intelligence report related to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi which found the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to have approved an operation to captivate or kill Khashoggi. Although further actions have not been taken by the new US administration in order to not harm ties between the two countries, the release of the reports serves as a stern warning to Riyadh, which has previously not worried about the issue to this extent. This, according to some Russian analysts, may open a path for Russia to take action and strengthen its geopolitical reach. 

According to some experts, unlike Washington, Moscow has shown consistency in its policy in the Middle East, including consistency in relations with Riyadh. These experts indicate that Russia has been strengthening its authority in the region, not only due to its military operation and political presence in Syria but also thanks to subtle diplomacy and the ability to negotiate with everyone. In this regard, experts have singled out Russia’s recent talks and partnerships with Turkey, Iran, Israel, and certain Arab countries as an example of this. In addition, in the eyes of expert Konstantin Sivkov, the tensions between the United States and the Saudis may lead to the opening of the Saudi market for the supply of military-industrial products from Russia. Sivkov indicated that even though Russia already has ties with Riyadh in this sense, he views that the Saudis will now be interested in the entire spectrum of Russian weapons in order to possess an alternative source for military equipment. In general, Russian experts perceive these tensions between Washington and Riyadh as a way to grow Russia’s influence in the region through arms trade and block US resurgence in the Middle East.

Certain Russian experts have voiced their opinion on how Russia could carry out these intentions by underlining certain points. In an interview by Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, to the Vzglyad newspaper, Pukhov warns that the Saudis are very specific clients and that when it comes to military-technical cooperation, Pukhov states that in reality, these purchases are of a purely political nature where under the guise of buying weapons, Saudi Arabia is actually attempting to buy favors, security guarantees, and the absence of criticism. He adds that in theory, Saudi Arabia can buy anything from airplanes to S-400 missiles and even a new batch of Kalashnikov assault rifles. “It is extremely difficult to predict what exactly the Saudis will ask of Russia because they see it as a bribe from Russia for its loyalty, both within the region and on the world stage” Pukhov indicates. In conclusion, given the long-standing interest of the Saudi military in the Russian S-400 air defense systems and other types of equipment, Russia will be able to significantly expand its presence in Saudi Arabia through military and industrial means, should the distance between Washington and Riyadh enlarge further.

Burç Eruygur

Burç Eruygur is a North African Studies Research Assistant. He graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in International Studies and a Master's Degree in International Relations from Leiden University. He specifically focuses on Egypt, and he also has knowledge on the region of Russia and Eurasia stemming from his Bachelor's studies.

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