No deal between Israel & Saudi Arabia yet, but expect more weapons sales

Iran is viewed as a threat by Jerusalem, Riyadh and Washington. So despite human rights violations, there will likely be more arms procurement by the Kingdom should they normalize ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 10, 2019 (photo credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI ROYAL COURT / REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 10, 2019
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia's appetite for weapons has grown and with normalization with Israel no longer being a pipe dream, the Sunni Kingdom will likely ask for something from Washington in return.
Earlier in the week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to the Saudi city of Neom with his military secretary, Brig.-Gen. Avi Bluth, and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Wall Street Journal later reported that a senior Saudi adviser said the three discussed normalization and Iran but that no agreements had been reached.
Still, the fact the two leaders met face-to-face and allowed the meeting to leak to the media indicates that normalization between the two most powerful countries in the Middle East is not too far off.
Though Washington has been selling Riyadh billions in military hardware, the US has been bound to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the Middle East before selling any advanced weaponry to regional states.
But this summer, following normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the administration of US President Donald Trump announced an arms package to UAE valued at almost $23.4 billion, which includes F-35 stealth fighter jets, drones with anti-submarine warfare kits, stealth cruise missiles and more.
Saudi Arabia is not going to sign any normalization deal without a similar package, or one that might even top it.
A March report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that arms imports by states in the Middle East increased by 61% between 2015–2019 over 2010–2014. Saudi Arabia received 35% of all arms transfers to the region followed by Egypt (16%), and the UAE (9.7%).
American arms exports to the Middle East increased by 79% over the last decade and accounted for 51% of total US arms exports between 2015-2019.
Last year the Institute found Middle East arms imports almost doubled in the previous five years, with Saudi Arabia becoming the world’s largest arms importer between 2014-2018.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia are nevertheless controversial, as the kingdom has an atrocious human rights record and is leading an alliance of Arab states (including the UAE) in a war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. That war has sparked one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and has led to dozens of countries imposing bans on arms sales to the Saudis.
But Riyadh imports most of its arms, such as fighter jets, tanks, missiles, advanced intelligence-gathering equipment and more, from the United States, and Washington has not imposed any ban yet.
Not only are the Saudis’ arms purchases taking place against the background of war in Yemen, but Iran’s increasing hostility has led the kingdom to procure more and more weapons.
With Israel giving Washington the green light to sell the F-35 to the UAE, Saudi Arabia will likely demand the same. In addition to advanced precision missiles, Riyadh has also expressed interest in active protection systems for its armored vehicles, missile defense batteries, electronic interference systems and advanced radar and other detection systems.
It might also want advanced armed drones like the MQ-9 Reaper drones and maritime weaponry.
Following the weapons deal signed between the UAE and the US, many have raised concerns that it would bring about a new cycle of arms proliferation in a region already awash with weapons and where major powers have no qualms about using proxy groups to fight their wars.
And with Iran viewed as a global threat by Jerusalem, Washington and Riyadh, Israel may once again green-light another large-scale arms sale to the kingdom to tilt the power balance even further against Tehran.