Saudi Arabia is considering purchasing Russia’s Iskander missile system, Russian news sources reported Wednesday after the two countries’ foreign ministers met in Moscow. The Arab kingdom was also considering buying other weapons from Russia, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said Tuesday.
“Intensive contacts are taking place between the military delegations and specialists from both countries and a wide range of intended types of armaments from Russia is being discussed, including Iskander missile systems,” Jubeir said, Russian news agencies reported.
If the purchase goes through, Saudi Arabia would be the first foreign country to buy the high-precision, close-range ballistic missile system. It would also become the first Russian sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which buys the majority of its weapons from the United States. But some analysts have suggested a final Russian-Saudi deal is unlikely, for geopolitical reasons.
“The Iskander is a very deadly system, and we don’t know how Saudi Arabia might use it,” Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said, the Moscow Times reported. “They [Saudi Arabia] are close allies of the U.S., so there is a risk that if we deliver Iskanders to them, the U.S. will get to inspect the system and then develop countermeasures against it, because it’s also designed to hit U.S. allies in Europe, such as Poland,” he added.
Others, like Alexander Ignatenko, the head of the Russian Institute for Religion and Politics, suggested that Saudi Arabia’s considering the purchase could be a ploy. “When they want to improve relations with some country, they might suggest acquiring its armaments,” he said, Sputnik News reported. Ignatenko added that Saudi Arabia probably did not actually need the missile system for defense purposes.
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The Iskander missile system is a versatile one that is highly precise, according to the Federation of American Scientists. It has a range of up to 500 kilometers and can destroy missiles, rocket systems, guns, aircraft and helicopters. It can also find and define targets using a variety of sources. “Even a small amount of such missiles drastically changes the balance of force in conflicts,” the FAS said.
During the same meeting in Moscow, Saudi Arabia rejected the possibility of joining a Russian effort to work with Syrian President Bashar al Assad against the Islamic State militant group. “As for a coalition in which Saudi Arabia would participate with the government of Syria, then we need to exclude that. It is not part of our plans,” Jubeir said, Agence France-Press reported. “There is no place for Assad in the future of Syria,” Jubeir added.
Although they differed over the issue of Assad, the two countries nevertheless agreed that the Islamic State group constituted a threat that needed to be fought, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted, the agency Xinhua reported.
Despite experts’ questioning of the Iskander deal, recent developments in the Middle East seem to have pushed Saudi Arabia into a window-shopping spree of late. The growing strength of a branch of the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, which is close to Saudi Arabia, and a nuclear deal struck in mid-July between Iran and the group of nations known as the P5+1, led by the United States, have sparked concerns in the oil-rich gulf nation about its own stability, as well as that of the region. It fears that the deal with Iran would allow the Islamic Republic to funnel more funding to proxy groups that Saudi Arabia considers a threat, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen, for instance.
The Arab kingdom, along with its regional neighbor Egypt, was reportedly looking into buying French Mistral warships, a French official said last Friday. “King Salman of Saudi Arabia wants to build a fleet in Egypt which could project regional power in the Red Sea and Mediterranean,” an unnamed French official told French newspaper Le Monde, according to Agence France-Press. Mistral warships are amphibious vessels that can transport helicopters.