Moscow and Washington weaponise their competition for Gulf influence

Published in GSN, 19 October 2017

Rivalry between Russia and United States has gone public with a number of potentially mould-breaking deals
The rivalry for influence across the region between Russia and United States broke out into the open as a series of proposed defence deals emerged in the first half of October. Saudi Arabia has suggested it could buy missile defence systems from both Moscow and Washington, Bahrain says it is also in the market for Russian missile defences and the UAE may be close to breaking from the regional norm for aircraft procurement with a deal to buy Russian fighter jets. It is not the first time Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have shown interest in diversifying their defence equipment supply chains away from the US and European allies, but the developments around missile defences in particular put the issue in a stark spotlight.

The potential and actual deals with Moscow are happening just as the US has suspended some military training exercises with its Gulf Arab allies in an effort to pressure them to bring the Qatar crisis in July to an end. “We are opting out of some military exercises out of respect for the concept of inclusiveness and shared regional interests,” Central Command (Centcom) spokesman Air Force Colonel John Thomas told the Associated Press (AP) in a 6 October report.

The US is often happy to join in with the multilateral military exercises GCC favour, including the annual Eagle Resolve drill, last held in Kuwait in March. By suspending its involvement, the US can send a clear and relatively cost-free message to its allies. US officers have previously voiced concerns about the Qatar crisis: Centcom commander General Joseph Votel said the dispute could undermine US efforts to oppose Iran and carry out operations in the region (GSN 1,042/9).

However, the US knows it cannot push its allies too far, for fear of sending them further into Russia’s orbit. As a result, Washington continues to announce weapons deals in the region. In September, the Department of Defense announced equipment and services contracts worth $780m for its Gulf allies, with a further $999m worth of deals involving Gulf countries alongside others outside the region. The largest deal was a $559m contract awarded to S&K Aerospace of Montana to provide support to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) until 2023 for its fleet of F-15 fighter jets.

During October, the State Department announced a $343m deal to provide logistics support services and equipment for Kuwait’s two C-17 military transport aircraft for the next three years and a $29m deal to sell Kuwait 218 M1A1 Abrams tanks.

Iran, Yemen drive missile defence business

Most significant was the State Department’s 6 October approval of the sale of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system to Saudi Arabia, at a cost of $15bn. The deal will cover 44 Thaad launchers, 360 interceptor missiles, seven radars and other related equipment. In a clear reference to Iran, State said the sale would “substantially increase Saudi Arabia’s capability to defend itself against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region”. The principal contractors are Lockheed Martin Space Systems Corporation and Raytheon Corporation. The Thaad sale is the latest element of the $110bn military sales announced during President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May (GSN 1,037/6).

Upgrading GCC missile defences has been a critical aim for Gulf and US governments for several years, but it is gaining added urgency from the development of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal (GSN 1,026/10). The UAE already has a Thaad system in place, while Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all have versions of the US-made Patriot system. Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen is a further issue. Patriot batteries have proved successful in shooting down some missiles fired across the border by Houthi rebels, but some still get through – one reportedly hit a school in Al-Jaradiyah village in Jazan province on 10 October.

Russia has also identified missile defence as a potentially lucrative area for its military industry. Deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin said on 5 October that Riyadh had expressed interest in buying its S-400 missile defence system. “Talks are in progress, but there are no final decision yet,” he said in quotes carried by the official TASS news agency. State-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (Sami) went slightly further, saying “preliminary agreements” had been signed. Existing customers for the S-400 system include China, India and Turkey; Iran has recently installed the S-300 system (GSN 1,041/13).

The potential sale was announced during King Salman Bin Abdelaziz’s visit to Moscow, which saw a series of other, more concrete defence deals. They included a memorandum of understanding between Sami and Rosoboronexport, which will allow the new Saudi state firm to manufacture a range of weaponry in the kingdom, including the Kornet-EM anti-tank guided missile system, TOS-1A advanced multiple rocket launcher and AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers. A separate deal was signed to license manufacturing of the Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifle in Saudi Arabia. Russian daily Kommersant, valued the package at more than $3bn.

It would be unusual for a country to opt for both the Russian and American missile defence system, but there are some examples of US allies choosing Russian systems. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member Turkey has signed up to buy S-400 batteries and its Nato rival Greece operates the older S-300 system. However, it remains to be seen whether Riyadh will press ahead with the order, or whether the announcement of talks is simply an attempt by Riyadh to gain leverage with the US in other defence contract discussions. There may be a similar strategy behind Bahrain’s apparent interest in a S-400 purchase, reported by a Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novasti on 17 November. Given the fiscal pressures Manama faces, it is unclear how it could afford such a system.

The other important aspect is that GCC countries know it is in their long-term national interest to have a diversified supply chain, particularly given the threat of the US Congress blocking defence deals. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, who has a dire relationship with Trump, has vowed to block any new sales to the Gulf while the Qatar crisis is ongoing (GSN 1,040/6). Such thoughts may be behind the UAE’s decision to enter talks to buy Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E multi-role fighter jets from Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, which was reported by TASS on 3 October. The contract could be finalised before the end of the year, with a squadron-sized order or bigger, suggesting at least 12 jets. Further talks on the deal are expected at the Dubai Air Show in mid-November. This follows comments by Russia’s industry and trade minister Denis Manturov in April that the UAE was in talks to buy “several dozen” Su-35s (GSN 1,035/7). In February, the UAE’s Mubadala Development Company signed an agreement with Russian partners to develop a next-generation fighter (GSN 1,033/7). If the Sukhoi Su-35 deal goes ahead it will mark a notable development, given GCC countries’ consistent preference for US and European planes until now.