Saudi Arabia warms to idea of purchasing S-400s from Russia

Saudi Arabia has long been considering the purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia. However, should it go ahead with this purchase, the United States is highly likely to protest.

As Reuters reported two weeks ago: “Any progress on long-mulled Saudi plans to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would cause disquiet in Washington, which is sending 3,000 troops and additional air defence systems to Saudi Arabia.”

The US has already reacted strongly to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile systems by banning the country from purchasing F-35 fighter jets despite the fact that Turkey is not the only NATO ally with Russian technology that the US deems incompatible with its own.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in buying Russian defence systems goes back at least two years, when the kingdom’s al Arabiya television reported that the country had agreed to buy the S-400. The announcement came during a visit by King Salman to Moscow on October 5, 2017.

More recently, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia on October 14 this year, his first in over a decade. Before he visited, Putin had offered to provide S-400 missile defence systems to the kingdom, and offered to be a negotiator between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran “given good ties with both sides”.

Putin’s offer of selling S-400 missile systems to Saudi Arabia came on the heels of a drone attack on the kingdom’s oil fields which the Houthis claimed and the kingdom accused Iran of being responsible for.

Writing for CNBC, Carlos Pascual, Senior Vice President for Global Energy and International Affairs at IHS Markit, noted: “[The damage to the oil fields] may have cost a few million, but the September 14 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia exacted immediate economic damages measured in billions. The burning fields and twisted metal illuminate risks that could cost the world trillions.”

On September 16, Putin was offering the Saudis a way to defend themselves from costly terror risks. During a news conference after a meeting on Syria with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, Putin said: “The Quran says that any kind of violence is unacceptable, except for one kind of violence, when you protect your people.”

He continued: “We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions, as Iran did by buying our S300, as Mr Erdogan did by deciding to buy the most advanced S400 air defence systems.”

He added: “These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack.”

The New York Times noted that Putin’s comments were met with laughter from Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Yet Mark N Katz, writing for the think tank Atlantic Council, urged readers to look deeper. “Rouhani’s and Zarif’s laughter at Putin’s offer to sell air defence missiles to Saudi Arabia, then, may not have been a sign that they did not take his offer seriously,” he said.

“Instead, it may have been more reflective of their dismay and resignation about how, just as Putin was not supporting Iran against Israel, he was now signalling that he would not support it against Saudi Arabia either.”

Katz also shed light as to why Saudi Arabia has been in talks to purchase the S-400 system from Russia for years, but still hasn’t confirmed it. He wrote: “Partly, it is believed, due to US pressure on the Saudis not to go through with it.”

Katz added: “Moscow may see the recent attack on Saudi Arabia as an opportunity to persuade the Saudis that the United States cannot adequately protect them, but that Russia can.”

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