Saudi Arabia Could Seek Russian Help in Building Defense Industry

Saudi Arabia wants to build a defense industry fast, and it’s ready to look beyond its traditional Western allies for help, Bloomberg reports.

For a long time, the oil-rich kingdom has been a favorite customer of arms sellers, especially American ones. Last year, during a trip to Riyadh, President Donald Trump announced deals worth $110 billion.

But the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman now wants to make weapons at home, and he’s set an ambitious goal: Half of Saudi procurement is supposed to be done locally by 2030, from about 2 percent today.

In this venture, the 32-year-old king will need partners — which means opportunities for Western companies, who were energetically exploring them at an arms fair in Riyadh this week. But there’s a potential catch. For joint ventures to work, U.S. and European governments may have to sign off on transfers of technology.

In case they’re reluctant to do so, the Saudis are making it clear that they have other options. They’re already planning to buy the Russian S-400 air-defense system, under a deal that would let them manufacture related products at home.

The prospect of more such agreements is likely to alarm American policy makers, who worry about losing ground to Russia and China in the Middle East.

“We will very carefully evaluate what our partners can bring to the table,” Andreas Schwer, head of Saudi Arabian Military Industries or SAMI, said in an interview Tuesday at the Riyadh fair.

“We won’t hesitate to go to second-tier suppliers or other potential partners, if they have full governmental support and no restrictions,” said Schwer, previously an executive at German defense group Rheinmetall AG. Saudi Arabia “could end up with other partners,” and with less U.S. involvement than some people would like, he said.

Russia and China are seeking “to fill in perceived gaps in U.S. interest by increasing defense cooperation and sales of their equipment to our regional partners,” General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 27.

Russia’s influence in the Middle East has soared since 2015, when its military intervention in Syria swung the civil war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. China’s economic role in the region is expanding, as it signs deals with Iran and seeks to get involved in rebuilding Syria.

Unlike America, the Saudis have cordial ties with China and Russia. The former is one of its best oil customers, and the latter increasingly its partner in regulating world oil output.