Russia and China are stepping up their efforts to woo Persian Gulf arms buyers, encroaching on a market long dominated by the U.S. and Europe and raising security concerns in Washington, Dow Jones Newswires reported in an article provided to Efe on Sunday.
The market is crucial for the global defense industry, with Saudi Arabia's $7.7 billion in 2018 deals making it the Mideast's top arms buyer, and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also in the world's top 10, according to market research firm IHS Markit.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. spent $40 million each on Chinese arms in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a nonprofit that tracks global arms deals. That is still a small amount, but a big jump over previous years. The U.A.E. also plans to develop weapons with a Chinese company.
Russia has sold missile systems to the U.A.E. and military rifles to Saudi Arabia in return for the right to produce the weapons in the kingdom. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have also bought Chinese military drones.
China and Russia are willing to sell arms and equipment, such as drones, to some Mideast countries when other countries are reluctant to do so because of weapons proliferation concerns, or, in the case of the U.S., a policy of giving its ally Israel a military edge.
The arms competition reflects growing tensions between the U.S. and its strategic rivals China and Russia over trade, security and other matters in a region the U.S. has long considered its sphere of influence.
The U.S. Department of Defense isn't only concerned about the threat to U.S. arms sales but also that China and Russia are trying to gain know-how about advanced military equipment and commercial technologies by working with U.S. allies, Pentagon officials say. These officials say the shift complicates future deals with Washington's Persian Gulf allies since the competing hardware may be incompatible with Western systems.
Russia and China have been laying down both military and economic roots in the region.
In the past couple of years, China set up a military base in the east African nation of Djibouti, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, in proximity to a U.S. facility the Pentagon uses for sensitive military operations, including drone strikes and special operations missions.
Beijing has also pressed for closer economic ties, hosting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February and announcing a flurry of agreements ranging across energy, investment and counterterrorism. Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the U.A.E., signing 13 deals.
"In terms of technology [the Chinese] are incredibly good, and they have more financial strength" than many rivals, said Alessandro Profumo, chief executive of Italian aerospace and defense equipment maker Leonardo SpA, which has sold combat aircraft and military helicopters in the Middle East. Such strength allows China to offer flexible payment terms for its customers, helping it to clinch deals particularly in less wealthy countries.
Russia, the world's second-biggest arms exporter after the U.S., has made its own push for influence in the Middle East following its military action in Syria since 2015 to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. Russian oil companies like PAO Rosneft have struck deals from Iraq to Libya, while Kremlin-connected firms have pushed for Syrian reconstruction business.
The Trump administration has made arms sales to Persian Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, a centerpiece of its foreign policy. President Trump has resisted U.S. senators' calls to restrict arms transfers to Saudi Arabia following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA said was likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia denies that.
U.S. companies, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., still account for about half of all defense exports to the Mideast, conducting more than $3 billion worth of deals with Saudi Arabia and $799 million with the U.A.E. in 2018 alone. Saudi Arabia accounts for almost 15% of the overall arms sales by BAE Systems PLC, Europe's leading arms maker by sales.
U.S. officials say they believe American technology gives its contractors an edge in the region. They have warned their Middle East allies not to become too enamored with the Chinese and Russian partnerships, saying it could threaten cooperation with the U.S. military, according to industry officials.
The pressure has had mixed results. Washington failed to persuade Turkey to abandon the purchase of Russia's S-400 air and missile defense system. Its manufacturer, Rostec State Corp., says it can shoot down aircraft at a range of up to 240 miles. Saudi Arabia has held talks with Russia over buying the system, too.
Sergey Chemezov, Rostec's chief executive, recently told reporters he wouldn't discuss the status of those talks because of the pressure Washington has placed on prospective buyers of Russian equipment. Representatives for Saudi Arabia didn't respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Chemezov said Rostec is in talks with the U.A.E. about the company's new warship-based antiaircraft system.
China North Industries Group Corp. known as Norinco meanwhile, announced plans in February to join forces with U.A.E. defense company International Golden Group PJSC to set up a research joint venture. Financial terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
Under the pact, the two partners will open a facility in Abu Dhabi staffed by Chinese and Emirati engineers. The program will develop weapons and training with the help of Chinese and Emirati universities and in cooperation with the U.A.E. armed forces. The center's first project will focus on drones that can be used for both surveillance but also offensive purposes, an Emirati official said.
U.S. restrictions on what American companies can sell help Russia and China. The U.S. typically holds off on selling the most advanced combat planes, such as the F-35, in the region to preserve Israel's advantage.
If the U.S. and Europe won't sell cutting-edge equipment, said Tom Waldwyn, researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London, then that "might mean Saudi Arabia opts for less-good Russian or Chinese alternatives."
By Nicolas Parasie and Robert Wall