Saudis Kick Off Historic Moscow Visit With Plans to Buy S-400 Air Defense System

Amid reported arms deals, the first ever visit by a Saudi King to the Kremlin could signal a shift away from the US.

Vitaly Kuzmin

After experiencing a literal false start to the first ever trip by a ruling Saudi Arabian monarch to Moscow, the country’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has gone to have what his country has called “historic momentum” in expanding relations with the Kremlin, including reports of a purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles and other arms deals. As with developments in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, this could indicate a political shift by the Saudi regime away from its historical ally the United States or an attempt to exert political pressure on officials in Washington.

Salman and his entourage touched down in Russia on Oct. 4, 2017, ahead of four days of talks on a variety of economic and foreign affairs issues. It has immediately become clear that the visit will have widespread impacts both in terms of cooperation between the two countries and the future of foreign policy throughout the Middle East.

“We have held detailed talks behind closed doors to talk about bilateral relations and the situation in the region,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference on Oct. 5, 2017. “I can say that our relations are keynoted by the similarity of views on many regional and international problems,” the Saudi King added.

The first day of discussions, which Putin described as “substantive, meaningful, and confidential,” nevertheless made international headlines. Particularly noteworthy were reports by the Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya television network, citing the state-run Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), that the country had signed a deal to buy the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

This is one of the most advanced weapons of its type at present anywhere in the world and the Russian manufacturers claim it can defeat a wide array of potential threats, including low-flying cruise missiles and stealth aircraft, when coupled with equally powerful radars. The Kremlin has used the deployment of these missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave in Northern Europe and with its forces in Syria as a means of sending a message to opponents in both regions.

Whether or not the weapons actually match the official sales pitch, the United States and other western countries have acknowledged that they could represent a significant threat in a crisis. As such, sales of the system also become an important tool of Moscow’s foreign policy.

Vitaly Kuzmin

S-400 missiles on an 8x8 wheeled launcher.

The U.S. government sees possible sales of any advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran as a threat to its own interests and that of its allies in the Middle East. The Turkish government’s recent decision to buy the S-400 also provoked the ire of other NATO members, who say it doesn’t fit within the alliance’s standards and signals a lack of unity in the bloc.

According to al-Arabiya, SAMI said there were deals in the works for TOS-1A thermobaric artillery rocket systems, seen in the video below, along with Kornet-EM guided anti-tank missiles, AGS-30 30mm automatic grenade launchers, and Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles, as well. The Saudi military industrial arm said the purchases were “based on the assurance of the Russian party to transfer the technology and localize the manufacturing and sustainment of these armament systems in the Kingdom.”

The possibility of technology transfer is an important detail as it could help the Saudis build their own domestic production capabilities. Many of their other regional partners might be interested in the ability to buy such systems from a local supplier. The Saudis themselves have also recently run into roadblocks continuing similar existing agreements with certain western countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, over its controversial intervention in Yemen.

It is worth noting that SAMI provided no indication of when any of this equipment would arrive in Saudi Arabia. Russia also appeared to downplay the status of the arrangements.

“There is some interest, of course,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, told Russia’s state-owned media outlet TASS. “Talks on S-400 are in progress, but there are no final decisions yet.”

But if reports about the deal with Saudi Arabia turn out to be accurate, it could similarly indicate a possible political shift by the country’s monarchy away from its historic reliance on the United States.  It would be an especially significant development given the unprecedented American arms sales to the Kingdom announced earlier in 2017, which included both Patriot long-range surface-to-air missiles – a rough analogue to the S-400 – and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile interceptors. The Saudis already have Patriot systems in their inventory.

US Army

A US Army Patriot missile launcher, similar to those Saudi Arabia already has in its arsenal.

This immediately calls into question why the Saudis would need to add S-400s to their arsenal. President Barack Obama and his administration had slow-rolled some arms deals with the Kingdom, in no small part over the situation in Yemen. President Donald Trump has shown no such qualms, though, making his first overseas trip after taking office to visit King Salman in May 2017.

Since then, the Trump Administration has been publicly supportive of the Saudis and touted shared interests in fighting international terrorism and containing the influence of Iran in the Middle East and beyond. However, in June 2017, there was a major political shakeup, with Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a younger member of the royal family widely known for overseeing the campaign in Yemen, taking the place of Mohammad bin Nayef Al Saud as Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia.

Many reports suggest that Mohammad bin Nayef is now under house arrest. The mental faculties of the aging King Salman have also come under scrutiny, further prompting concerns that Mohammad bin Salman is rapidly gaining more influence over the Kingdom’s affairs. It is possible that the young prince is interested in taking the country in a different direction or in retaliation for the United States offering less than unequivocal support as time has gone on for its dispute with Qatar.

Sergey Guneev/Sputnik  via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in May 2017.

The Kingdom has also tried to soften its image by recently by finally giving women the right to drive cars, a long-standing public relations issue for the conservative Islamic country. Critics say it is token gesture that doesn’t do anything to free women from “guardianship” rules requiring them to receive the formal approval of a male relative to make many major personal and economic decisions.

As with the United Arab Emirates possible purchase of Russian Su-35S fighter jets, the Saudis decision to buy weapons from the Kremlin could be a way to exert additional political pressure on the United states to push through more military aid or even gather additional information about the capabilities of their opponents. Iran, the Saudi’s major regional competitor, has long expressed an interest in buying the S-400, as well.

Another possibility is that the Saudis see benefits in expanding cooperation with the Russian that are detached from its relationship with the United States and worth risking those historical ties over. Russia and Saudi Arabia both rely heavily on the money they make from the export of oil and other related products, though the Kremlin is not a member of the powerful Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) bloc.

In January 2017, the two parties signed a deal to try and stabilize the international price of oil, which has been in freefall for years and has had a serious impact on their respective economics. The arrangement “breathed life back into OPEC,” Khalid Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, said at the time.

Vitaliy Belousov/Sputnik  via AP

Saudi Arabia's energy minister Khalid Al-Falih speaks in Moscow in October 2017.

With ISIS in retreat in Iraq and Syria, and the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad looking as firmly entrenched as ever, the Saudis may be looking at expanded ties with Moscow as a way to temper the Iranians from expanding their foothold in the region. King Salman and his advisers could easily feel that there is an opportunity to force Putin to decide between supporting them or the regime in Tehran.

Notably, during his remarks on Oct. 5, 2017, the Saudi monarch reiterated his country’s long-standing demand that Iran stop meddling in the affairs of other countries in the region, but left out any call for Assad to step down. Saudi Arabia has been one of the most significant supporters of Syrian rebels fighting the government in Damascus, both rhetorically and in terms of actual weapons and supplies. It would not be difficult to imagine the Saudis offering to “trade” support for Syria to the Russians in exchange for a reduction in the Kremlin’s ties with Iran.

If could, of course, be none of these things at all, but rather just a desire on the part of the Saudis to expand their ties with foreign governments in general and move beyond a more or less exclusive connection with the United States. The Trump Administration’s many political crises may just have prompted a desire to have more partners on the world stage.

Sipa via AP

US President Donald Trump walks Saudi Arabia's King Salman during his visit to the country in May 2017.

For its part, the Kremlin has been working steadily to expand its own relationships throughout the Middle East and North Africa, presenting itself an alternative to the U.S. government that is less likely to scrutinize a country’s human rights record and related policies. The Russians have already expanded their ties with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both also traditional U.S. partners in the region, as well as working with rogue general Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who opposes the American-backed government in that country.

Whatever the Saudis’ reasoning is, this engagement will surely have an impact in U.S. foreign policy and its relationship with the Kingdom. At present, Saudi Arabia is likely the United State’s second most important ally in the region, with Israel being the first. The Trump Administration will need its support if it wants to advance any of its future regional goals, especially the desire to exert new pressure on Iran over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

And to be sure there’s no real indication that the Saudis, or the Emiratis or the Egyptians, are looking to dump the United States as a partner, but they are making it clear that they have alternatives if there were to be a more serious political dispute.