Russia's share of the Middle East defence market has doubled in three years, establishing a foothold in one of the world's most lucrative defense markets. Who stands to gain or lose?
Subject: Ever since the country’s military campaign in Syria, interest in Russia’s defence offerings has grown, prompting a struggle for influence in the region with the US.
Ever since the beginning of its intervention in Syria, Russia’s engagement with the Middle East has been steadily on the rise.
Syria offered the Russian military a priceless opportunity: a conventional testing ground for its defence industry.
Since then, interest in Russian defence offerings has only grown.
Alexander Mikheyev, CEO of Russian defence firm Rosoboronexport admitted as much, while speaking to TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency.
"The demand is rather significant after Syria’s events," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also taken the same line.
“Syria is not a shooting range for Russian weapons, but we are still using them there, our new weapons,” Putin said.
“This has led to the improvement of modern strike systems, including missile systems. It is one thing to have them, and quite another thing to see how they fare in combat conditions,” clarified the Russian president.
But this year, Russian defence exports have reached new heights of exposure, making a splash at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), the Middle East’s largest defence summit, held annually in the United Arab Emirates.
IDEX has always been a key event for defence companies around the world, but is increasingly vital to Russian weapons manufacturers in recent years, as sanctions slowly restrict their access to American and European markets. Where can they make up for lost business? Among the oil-rich deserts of the Middle East.
More than 50 Russian companies are presenting their wares at IDEX this year.
Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec Corporation told the Russian Tass news agency: “For us, Middle Eastern and North African countries are extremely important markets where we implement numerous projects both in the civilian sector and in defence.”
“In total, about 1,000 exhibits will be on display,” he confirmed.
Last year, Russian companies took up nearly 1,400 square meters of space to showcase their products.
The Middle East isn’t the only place where there’s money to be made for Russia, although it may be the most profitable. Other notable markets include China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia.
This year, the Middle East’s leaders and generals will see new defence offerings, beyond the usual Su-35 and MiG-29 fighter jets, small arms and tanks usually pushed by Russia.
Foremost amongst them is the Pantsir-ME shipborne air defence missile and artillery system, which was demonstrated during IDEX 2019. Its specifications, if accurate, are impressive.
The Pantsir-ME can be mounted on any ship displacing more than 300 tonnes, featuring agile missile complements and two high-velocity machine guns. The system is unique in that it can be used to cheaply upgrade any fleet, offering an all-in-one offensive and defensive fire package.
The system can be used autonomously, or as part of a network throughout a vessel. It can also be installed on smaller corvettes, frigates, or destroyers.
A Russian statement claims that the system missile complement can simultaneously fire at four targets with a distance of 20 kilometres and a ceiling of 15 kilometres.
If they miss the first time, Russia claims “the target will be hit by artillery fire with a 100 percent guarantee”.
How? With a “completely automated” learning process that includes target acquisition, aiming, and firing.
The advertised fire-and-forget features are undoubtedly attractive to third-world militaries who already face the high-bar of difficulty that comes with creating a navy without the naval traditions and experiences established navies benefit from.
Other Russian offerings include the AK-47, a common sight in Middle Eastern conflicts due to its low cost and ruggedness, since updated with the new AK200, a sleeker, modern variant.
Russia is currently the second-largest arms supplier worldwide.
In 2018, Rostec and its subsidiary, Rosoboronexport, supplied arms and military equipment to over 40 countries worldwide, amounting to a total of $20 billion in trade.
The Middle East and North Africa alone were responsible for more than 40 percent of Rosoboronexport’s business. This is up from 20 percent only two years prior.
The Middle East’s appetite for arms has definitely increased. Currently, the region leads the world by purchased volume of weapons, making up nearly one-third of the global market.
Saudi Arabia looks towards Russia
Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar are on the top of the list major defence buyers. Saudi Arabia remains the top importer, responsible for a growing share of business with Russia.
According to Rostec’s CEO, Saudi Arabia is currently in talks with Russia to purchase the S400 missile systems.
This came following a bilateral agreement reached during a visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Moscow in October 2017, marking the first visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia.
Russia’s Sputnik also reported that Saudi Arabia would finalise a deal to domestically produce Russian Kalashnikov rifles by the end of February 2019.
Militarisation in the UAE
Russia’s biggest client this year was none other than the UAE.
It signed defence deals to acquire more than $5.4 billion in arms and military equipment during the IDEX conference, in spite of ongoing calls to end the war in Yemen, in which the UAE plays a leading role.
At least $1.9 billion was allocated to deals with US firms Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to purchase air defence missiles, according to a Reuters report.
Rosoboronexport Director General Alexander Mikheev told reporters that Russia had received a request from the UAE to modernise its Pantsir-S1 systems.
This is in addition to a separate purchase of Russian Kornet-E anti-tank missile systems worth $40 million, according to a statement by UAE Brigadier General Mohammed Al Hassani.
The Kornet was a favourite of armed militias and insurgents as far back as the 1990s, seeing heavy use in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and most notably Yemen. The rockets are prized for their ease of use, and for giving light infantry the ability to stand up to heavy armour and conventional armies.
“Emirati forces receive billions of dollars’ worth of arms from Western states and others, only to siphon them off to militias in Yemen that answer to no-one and are known to be committing war crimes," noted Patrick Wilcken, arms control researcher at Amnesty International.
Bilateral ties between the two countries however, have only seen steady improvement in recent years.
On the same day the deals were declared, Russia announced visas on arrival for Emirati passport holders, and further announced through Tass, Russia’s state media agency, that the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) had reached $2 billion in 2019 from Saudi Arabian and Emirati investments, with the number only expected to rise.
This is in addition to bilateral cooperation agreements from late 2018 between Russia and the UAE on areas of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and the creation of a Russian industrial zone in Egypt, based on an agreement dating to 2014.
Only six months earlier, the UAE reached an agreement with Russia to send its first astronaut into space, as part of a bid to kickstart its envisioned space industry.
The US Patriot Missile system, a defensive platform, has come under fire for an overstated effectiveness record. The US Patriot missile is often touted as the US equivalent to the Russian S400 and S500 missile platforms.
During the 1991 Gulf War, defence officials stated that the Patriot Missile had a near-perfect record, intercepting 45 out of 47 incoming Scud missiles.
This was later revised to about 50 percent, and even then noting ‘higher’ confidence in only about 25 percent of cases.
Investigations conducted by the congressional research service found that if the US army had consistently and accurately applied its assessment method, the number would be far lower. Reportedly, this number was one Scud missile shot down.
Following a House Committee on Government Operations investigation, not enough evidence was available to support any interceptions at all.
“There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War," the investigations concluded.
"There are some doubts about even these engagements," it added.
Middle Eastern countries are coming to view Russian missile platforms as alternatives to their more expensive, and often less effective American counterparts, according to Egyptian Brigadier General Samir Ragheb, President of the Arab Foundation for Development and Strategic Studies, speaking to German broadcaster DW.
"There is no doubt that this Russian system outperforms the Patriot system in range and ability to deal with targets in a small orbit, and its ability to launch multiple missiles," Ragheb said.
In this respect, the S400 may present a challenge to the US Patriot Missile system which is widely used by NATO, given its greater range and ability to double as both an offensive and defensive platform.
This comes at a deep cost to the US, given that Russian defence platforms are not interoperable with US military hardware, putting barriers between effective military cooperation with countries in the region, proportionate to the amount of Russian technology products they acquire.
As Russian defence offerings gain new traction in the Middle East, the struggle between Russia and the US for Middle Eastern defence market shares amounts to, once more, a stand-off over influence in the region as old as the Cold War itself.