A Patriot Missile System (US Army)
“The Saudis might be demonstrating that they can go to other sources and solutions for air defense through building on the worsening of US-Turkish relations, at the heart of which is US unhappiness over Turkish acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system,” Yezid Sayegh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, says…
BEIRUT: Greece is lending a Patriot air defense missile system to Saudi Arabia to help it protect critical energy facilities from Houthi attacks and to cope with Turkish muscle-flexing in the region.
“We signed an agreement to move a Patriot battery here in Saudi Arabia,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said on April 20. “This is a big step forward for our country regarding the cooperation with the Gulf countries and also a contribution to the wider security of the energy sources for the West.”
This is the first formal accord with such a wide scope between the two countries and Saudi officials believe the Kingdom is forging bilateral relations with states sharing similar concerns.
“The idea is to face the Turkish muscle-flexing in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. We believe that Riyadh is responding to Turkey through establishing an alliance with Ankara’s rival Greece and carrying out exercises in the nearby region,” the officials told me.
Last month, Athens and Riyadh held joint drills to develop the skills of air and technical crews and support their readiness and exchange experiences in all fields. Saudi F-15s and Greece’s F-16, Mirage 2000 and F-4 Phantom fighter jets performed exercises in both attack and defense formations and close air support training.
“We wonder if this isn’t more a case of signaling the Biden administration to discouraging it from taking steps against the kingdom?” they add.
However, regional officials and experts say the move does not amount to a major strategic shift in the region.
The Saudi defense leadership is probably using this agreement for geo-political purposes. “Engaging with Greece on such an important aspect of military technology sends a strong political signal,” Yezid Sayegh, senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center told Breaking Defense.
“The real question is, who is the intended target? The Saudis have not yet invested in improving ties with Turkey, unlike the UAE who have been warming up. But, nonetheless, I don’t really see any pressing reason for the Saudis to engage in pressuring Turkey just now,” he said.
The Saudis may also be demonstrating that they can go to other sources and solutions for air defense. “They might be building on the worsening of US-Turkish relations, at the heart of which is US unhappiness over Turkish acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system,” Sayegh added.
By dealing with another NATO ally, they might be calculating that they can highlight the difference between them and Turkey — that is, “in contrast to Turkey’s hostile behavior and threat to US national security, Saudi Arabia is a loyal friend.”
Another reason is that the kingdom’s security is a top priority, retired Kuwaiti Air Force Col. Zafer Alajmi told me.
“The Gulf country is under severe pressure from the Houthi attacks and must protect its skies at all costs,” Alajmi said. “With the US now withdrawing military equipment from the Kingdom, the Saudis don’t have the luxury of choice. They will have to pick a NATO ally of the US to acquire air defense to help boost their defenses and secure world energy supplies.”
This comes at a time where President Biden has directed the Pentagon to begin removing some military capabilities from Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missiles, and when Houthis attacks on Saudi oil facilities and military sites are becoming more frequent.
Yemen’s Houthis recently claimed to have launched drone attacks against Saudi Arabian energy giant Aramco’s facilities. According to Reuters, the Houthi military spokesman said on Twitter the group had targeted the King Khalid air base with two drones and had struck a facility of Saudi Arabia’s oil company Aramco with a drone in the southwestern Saudi city of Jizan. He later said the Houthis had launched a third strike on the air base.
Still, no realistic prospects for arms deals of any real significance looks imminent.
“Greece offers very little of any military value to the Saudis because its armed forces suffer from ageing equipment and their defense industry is not advanced,” Sayegh told me. “Nor are they free to transfer anything they want to Saudi Arabia if it contains any US components.”
But it does add however to the wider political divergence between Turkey and other countries over the eastern Mediterranean, “in which France plays the lead role,” he continued.
The proper use of air defense assets remains however a main challenge.
“First, they already have US-supplied missile defense and would normally get it from the US if they needed more. Also, what the Abkaik attack showed was that they used their air defense assets poorly and were very slow to respond at all,” Sayegh said. In other words, “their problem and needs relate not to equipment but to the human system that operates it.”