Saudi Arabia makes an offer to Washington with the potential purchase of Russia's s-400 anti-missile system

Riyadh negotiates with Moscow over arms purchases and highlights the erosion of its relations with the United States
Mohamed Bin Salmán y Vladimir Putin

PHOTO/AP  -   File photo, Russia's President Vladimir Putin with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan

Riyadh has never been so far apart from Washington. After nearly nine decades of prolific relations, the Wahhabi kingdom sees a serious rift in the regional roadmap outlined by the United States. No matter the occupier, Saudi Arabia is seen as a junior partner from the Oval Office. At least that is the suspicion that Saudi officials have been harbouring for some months now. The truth is that the US has withdrawn from its Middle East positions and shifted its base of operations to neighbouring Qatar, a move that has not gone down well in the House of Saud.

Afghanistan has not been the only theatre to witness a US withdrawal. Iraq and Syria await with uncertainty the final departure of US troops, which is expected to take effect in the coming months. And Saudi Arabia is witnessing a discreet backtracking by the Biden Administration on its defence support with the withdrawal of Patriot missiles and the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system from the country a few days ago.

Joe Biden en el Despacho Oval
AFP/ JIM WATSON  -   US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office

In 2019, the Pentagon reinforced its military presence in the country by sending troops, two Patriot missile batteries and a THAAD system after an alleged Iranian airstrike on Saudi Aramco's oil facilities disrupted the supply of 'black gold'. The climate of tension between Riyadh and Tehran was at an all-time high with cross-border offensives launched by the Persian-backed Houthis.

A year later and under the presidency of Joe Biden, the US interprets the threats in the Gulf as having lowered the decibels and its Saudi ally no longer needs the logistical and military deployment. The State Department's basic strategy is to concentrate its efforts to counter China and Russia and leave behind a region, the Middle East, that has cost it billions of dollars with hardly any significant gains.

Riyadh is not of the same opinion. The desert kingdom does not quite understand the US decision in a context in which the offensives carried out by Yemeni insurgents are constant and the Afghan crisis threatens to destabilise the rest of the region. Although outwardly Saudi officials have described the relationship with Washington as "strong, enduring and historic", there is strong dissatisfaction within the Kingdom.

Sistema antimisiles Triumph
REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR  -  S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system at a military base outside the city of Gvardeysk, near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019

The US has also given no hint of friction. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stated that the US maintains tens of thousands of forces deployed in the region "in support of the national interests of the United States and our regional partners", a clear reference to Saudi Arabia. However, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin cancelled his visit to Riyadh citing scheduling reasons during his Middle East tour this week.

Saudi Arabia believes it needs defensive reinforcements for its oil installations and military and civilian sites targeted by the Houthi attack, even more so with the withdrawal of US weapons. This prompted Riyadh to seal an ambiguous arms deal with the Kremlin last August, a marked distancing from the US orbit.

One of the points of the memorandum signed by both parties includes the Saudi acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile launch systems, known as 'Triumph', a prestigious weapon. If the deal materialises, it could lead to a similar rift between Washington and Riyadh as the one that occurred with Ankara. Turkey's acquisition of the Russian-made anti-missile system prompted the US to impose a sanctions regime against Turkey, NATO's second-largest partner.

Putin y Bin Salmán
PHOTO/SAUDI PRESS  -  Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Al Yamamah Royal Palace, October 14, 2019

Saudi Arabia argues that the deal was prompted by the withdrawal of US weaponry. The s-400 anti-missile system would be a credible alternative to the Patriot and THAAD. In any case, the main objective of the Wahhabi kingdom is to regain the attention of its historical ally and strengthen relations that have lost momentum since Biden's arrival. The new administration has had no qualms about criticising certain aspects of the Saudi regime and has made the defence of human rights, a practice that is little respected in the Gulf, its priority - for some, a pretence - a priority. However, Russia would not act as a partner of guarantees for Saudi Arabia due to its proximity to Iran. 

Finally, the declassification of the 9/11 archives has also irritated the House of Saud. The release of the documents points to possible logistical and financial support provided by Saudi authorities in the attack that changed the course of history, projecting a dark image of the Kingdom.