A simple, one-sentence Russian language news item published by Russia's Interfax on July 14 seemingly signals yet another tectonic shift in the Middle East's volatile mixture of oil, religion and weaponry. The item read, "An agreement about military-technical collaboration (VTS) between Russia and Saudi Arabia was signed Monday evening, reports an Interfaks [sic] correspondent; the agreement was signed in the presence of RF Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by Federal agency on VTS head Mikhail Dmitriev and National Security Council of Saudi Arabia Secretary General Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz" (Interfax, July 14).
The next day the Saudi Press Agency provided more details, differing from the Interfax bulletin by noting that it was actually Bandar and Putin who signed the agreement, adding that "Bandar reiterated the keenness of the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on further cementing Saudi-Russian relations in the political, military, security, cultural and technological domains" (Saudi Press Agency, July 15).
While no text of the agreement was published, the news apparently represents a major potential realignment of the Middle East's geopolitical realities, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that, beginning 29 years ago and continuing through the entire Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia matched, dollar for dollar, the United States' covert assistance to the Mujahideen.
Saudi Ambassador to Russia Ali bin Hassan Jaafar commented that the event reflected the two nations' "sincere" desire to develop not only military-technical cooperation, but also broader joint endeavors in other fields, adding, "It will be one more bridge linking our countries" (Vedomosti, July 16).
Russian sources remarked that the Saudi military was particularly interested in Mi-17 transport and Mi-35 (NATO designation--"Hind-E") attack/transport helicopters. Ironically, an earlier variant of the Mi-35, the Mi-24, was used extensively during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to strafe Mujahideen, operating with complete air superiority until July 1985, when the United States began to supply the Mujahideen with hundreds of FIM-92A Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
Riyadh's shopping list apparently is not limited to transporters and helicopters, as the source also stated that Saudi Arabia also was interested in purchasing Russia's most advanced aircraft and air defense systems, as well as T-90S main battle tanks, and was considering purchasing and integrating Russian-built S-300 and S-400 air defense systems with their U.S. Patriot systems (Vremya Novostei, July 16).
Discussions between Riyadh and Moscow have been underway since then President Putin visited Saudi Arabia in February 2007, when he met not only with King Abdullah but also with Sultan, former ambassador to the United States, who was appointed NSC head in October 2005, and Sultan's father, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, half-brother of King Abdallah and currently Saudi Arabia's minister of defense and aviation (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 16, 2007).
Obviously impressing his host, Abdullah awarded Putin the Order of King Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia's highest governmental award. Extending his trip to call on other U.S. regional allies, Putin also visited Qatar and Jordan.
Following up on Putin's 2007sojourn, Defense Minister Sultan subsequently visited Moscow in November, while last February Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal visited Moscow for discussions with then President Putin (Kommersant, February 15).
Putin said of the agreement, "Our relations are developing well; trade turnover is growing, though in absolute terms it still looks modest, but considering our good ties, we have good prospects and a good basis" (Interfax, July 14).
Speculation immediately flared in the Russian press that Riyadh was using the agreement and dangling large potential weapons contracts in front of Russia in an effort to woo Moscow away from Iran (Kommersant, July 15). Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spokesman, was forced to deny the reports, saying, "Any allegations to the effect that Russia's relations with Saudi Arabia with regard to military technological cooperation may in any way be linked to the Russian-Iranian dialogue are out of place and untrue" (Interfax, July 15). If the allegations are true, they provide yet another hidden aspect to the West's efforts to cajole and pressure Tehran into abandoning its uranium enrichment program.
The news is unpleasant for the U.S., as from 1999 to 2006, Saudi Arabia received $6.5 billion under arms transfer agreements with the United States, an annual average of $815 million in inflation-adjusted fiscal year 2006 dollars; and in July 2007 Washington announced the sale of $20 billion in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council. For Russia, to enter such a lucrative arms market, which for years was the exclusive purview of the EU and the U.S., is potentially worth billions of dollars. While Saudi Arabia has yet to express an interest in such top-end (and expensive) items as fighters, Riyadh's potential shopping list reportedly includes not only the items mentioned earlier, but also 150 advanced T-90S tanks, over 100 helicopters including the Mi-35, Mi-17 and Mi-28NE variants, the Buk-M2E medium range air defense systems and several hundred BMP-3 armored personnel carriers; and the wish list could grow, according to a Russian defense industry source (Interfax-AVN, July 15).
For Washington, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agreement is the deep involvement of Bandar, who appears to be the driving agent behind Saudi Arabia's growing military cooperation with Russia. During his time in Washington, Bandar by dint of seniority became the unofficial dean of the diplomatic corps and was so close to the Bush family that he earned the sobriquet, "Bandar Bush." Obviously Bandar's loyalties may be more malleable than Washington previously thought.
More concrete details of the agreement will doubtless become known in the coming days; but for Washington the final slap must be Bandar bin Sultan's comment, "Both Russia and Saudi Arabia agree upon and understand each other in virtually every energy-related issue" (Interfax, July 14). Saudi Arabia and Russia are the world's number one and two oil exporters, controlling nearly a quarter of the world's oil production between them. If the two "understand each other," then the potential anguish over the growing Russian-Saudi rapprochement could extend far beyond the Western military-industrial complex to include motorists and those seeking to heat their homes next winter. The only potential silver lining in the newfound friendship between the two is that Saudi Arabia is a member of OPEC while Russia is not, which may cause their interests to diverge. An energy hungry world can only hope so.