The end of the US hegemony in the Middle East, recently highlighted by the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the combat missions in Iraq, is fostering unexpected alignments between disillusioned local partners and Washington’s main competitors, which have been prompt to reap the benefits of the US disengagement. Russia, in particular, seems to be moving at ease on this fertile ground, actively cultivating ties with key partners of major NATO countries and gradually expanding its geopolitical clout.
Much more than Beijing, so far focussed on trade and the economy, Moscow has been using its military-industrial complex as a formidable vector of influence. Arms procurement helped strengthen ties with regional powers such as Riyadh, which seems increasingly responsive to Russia’s offers. For instance, on the occasion of the International Military-Technical Forum (ARMY 2021) held in Kubinka, Russia, between 22 and 28 August, the Deputy Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Khalid bin Salman, announced the signature of an agreement to promote military cooperation. After a meeting with the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prince Khalid also said that the two governments are exploring ways to strengthen military and defence cooperation to preserve stability and security in the region.
The agreement surprised many observers, despite the fact that the approaches between Russia and Saudi Arabia were going on for quite some time. In particular, the Saudi’s intention to diversify arms procurement and move it away from the overreliance on the US, whose foreign policy is now considered pretty erratic in Riyadh, had already laid the groundwork.
In 2017 Russia and Saudi Arabia had already agreed to a US$3 billion arms deal, including a contract for the domestic production of the TOS-1A multiple rocket launcher, a license for the 9M133 Kornet man portable antitank guided missile, the AGS-30 automatic grenade launchers and AK rifle variants, such as the AK-103. More importantly, talks over the purchase of the S-400 missile defence systems, that are a bone of contention already within NATO, are still ongoing at the same time as Washington is removing Patriot batteries and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.
It is highly likely that warming ties with Moscow is seen by local partners such as Saudi Arabia as a leverage to pledge their cause in Washington, extract more concessions or ease the mounting pressure on controversial topics such as human rights, one of the main priorities of the new US administration. In any case, as we draw closer to a post-US era in the region, Russia is presumably expected to make further inroads and cement its influence in a more favourable environment, building upon an already established military foothold that spans from the Maghreb to the Levant and the Red Sea.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region