For many years, the Middle East has been a turbulent region, where military clashes and terrorist attacks occur regularly. The Middle Eastern governments pay therefore special attention to security issues and the development of military technologies. It is especially valuable for them to cooperate with Russia in these areas, as Moscow is an established authority in the defense industry. In addition, Russia has recently tested and demonstrated the effectiveness of its military equipment in real combat operations in Syria to the whole world. According to the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation of the Russian Federation (FSVTS), currently up to 20% of all Russian arms are exported to the Middle East, which brings over $2 billion a year to the Russian economy.
As is known, countries engaged in military-technical cooperation (“MTC”) with the Russian Federation are at present under threat of sanctions from the United States. This can be seen from the experience of China, Turkey and Egypt, who decided to acquire Russian surface-to-air missile systems S-400. For one, the United States imposed economic sanctions on the PRC, with which it had already been waging a ‘trade war’ for the past two years. In retaliation for Egypt’s purchase of the S-400, in June 2019 the US refused to sell F-35 fighter jets to it. Even Turkey, which has been a member of NATO since 1952, received several threats from the United States, including warnings about denying it the F-35 fighters as well. However, threats from the US achieved the exact opposite effect: Egypt refused to abandon the S-400 and decided in addition to acquire a batch of Russian Su-35 fighters, instead of the F-35 fighters withheld by the US.
On November 17-21, 2019, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) once again hosted the Dubai Airshow aerospace exhibition, which has been held regularly since 1986. It is one of the largest and most prestigious international exhibitions where the leaders of the international aviation, space and military industries showcase their latest projects.
It is reported that 87,000 representatives of these industries from 76 countries attended the 2019 Dubai Airshow. Over 1,200 companies demonstrated their products.
As always, Russia played a prominent role at the exhibition. Russia has extensive experience in the aircraft industry, and its civilian and military developments always attract the attention of potential buyers from all over the world. The Russian Federation has been a constant participant of Dubai Airshows since 1993. In 2019, Rosoboronexport (the Russian state company engaged in the export of military products) organized an exhibition of the leading Russian companies specialized in weapons and military equipment production: Helicopters of Russia, High-Precision Systems, Almaz-Antey, etc. Given that the Dubai Airshow focuses on aviation, a variety of combat aircraft were presented. Among them were the super-maneuverable Su-35 (according to many experts, it is on par with the American F-35 or possibly even surpasses it), the multi-functional Su-57 fighter, the Su-32 bomber, the light MiG-35 fighter, as well as combat helicopters Mi-28, Mi-35, Ka-52 (known as the Alligator) and the transport and combat helicopter Ka-29. In addition, Russian gunsmiths demonstrated means for combating enemy aircraft, such as the medium-range surface-to-air missile system Pantsir‑S1M, the Buk missile system and the renowned S-400.
On November 18, just a day after the exhibition opened, it was reported that Russian Helicopters had decided to sell 50% of the company’s shares in VR-Technologies to the UAE-based company Tawazun. VR-Technologies is developing new helicopters, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In addition to Russian drones, various counter-UAV technologies were exhibited at the 2019 Dubai Airshow. This is of particular interest in the Middle East after the UAVs allegedly owned by Yemeni rebels attacked refineries of the national Saudi Aramco oil company in September 2019. Strategically important plants were protected by air defense systems purchased from the United States. However, the small and inconspicuous UAVs of the rebel forces managed to circumvent them. At the same time, the Russian military in Syria has had to repel UAV attacks more than once. According to their data, in 2019 alone, 58 enemy drones were destroyed during an attack on the Khmeimim Air Base of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Perhaps this was what compelled the Saud Arabian leadership and the other Middle Eastern states to reconsider the direction of their military-technical cooperation. Thus, after the Dubai Airshow the media reported that Saudi Arabia and Russia were negotiating the participation of the latter in developments of the Saudi national air defense system, which could benefit from being equipped with Russian weapons. It is worth recalling that in 2017 Saudi Arabia also decided to purchase the S-400 air defense system, and it doesn’t intend to back down on this decision. All this is quite significant news, since Saudi Arabia is traditionally considered the primary ally and pillar of the United States in the Arab world. Such a clear turn made by Saudi Arabia towards cooperation with Russia should make Washington think about its style of communication with its Eastern partners.
Shortly after the exhibition in the UAE a statement was released by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in December 2019. He said that if the United States does decide to cancel the supply of F-35 fighters to Turkey, the latter will purchase the Russian Su-35, just like Egypt.
All in all, this leads to several conclusions. Firstly, military-technical cooperation with Russia is aligned with the strategic interests of the Middle East countries in the sphere of security, and the demand for Russian weapons in these countries is so great that they are even willing to damage relations with the US in order to acquire them. Secondly, it seems that American influence in the Middle East is at a bit of a standstill, seeing as the USA’s old partners, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, so openly confront them. Thirdly, these three states are among the most influential in the Middle East and the whole Arab world. If they have made a U-turn towards Russia, then other nations in the region may follow suit. As a rule, military-technical cooperation is often a good indicator of political relations between countries. Evidently, the military-technical cooperation between Russia and the Middle East is entering a period of prosperity.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”