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Russia said confident of $2bn Saudi arms deal with Russia

The kingdom's apparent decision to shift its reliance from western suppliers to Moscow has set off geopolitical alarm bells in Washington.

Saudi Arabia appears on the verge of signing a groundbreaking, US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) arms deal with Russia. Although the Saudis refuse to confirm or deny that negotiations are going on, the Russians appear confident the deal will go through in the coming months, sending a shiver through the ranks of conservative commentators in the United States. Until now, Saudi Arabia, which is expected to have a defence budget reaching $44bn next year, has bought virtually all of its military equipment from the West, with the US way ahead in pole position, followed by Britain and then France. What baffles observers is why the kingdom should now turn to the Russians, whose arms salesmen have been increasingly turning their attention to Middle East oil states but whose reputation for on-time delivery is not among the best. Those with longer memories in the region also have reservations about the reliability of the equipment itself, dating back to bad experiences with Soviet-era hardware in the 1950s and 1960s. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, a former ambassador in Washington who now heads Saudi Arabia's National Security Council, signed a military co-operation pact with the Russians in Moscow last year. After meeting the president, Dmitry Medvedev, and the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, the prince told Al Arabiya television: "The kingdom's policy is certainly always to diversify its sources of arms." Yet there are suggestions that the unprecedented arms deal might have much more to do with Russian weapons supposedly heading for Iran than with Russian weapons being bought by Saudi Arabia. According to The Times of London last week: "In 2007, [Russia] signed a deal to provide Iran with its own S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to protect its nuclear facilities. "Israel has vowed to bomb Iran if it believes that the system is on its way. Saudi Arabia has offered what amounts to a bribe, promising to buy $2bn in Russian arms if Moscow scraps the deal - an attractive offer when Russia is trying to increase its share of the Middle Eastern arms market." The Russian foreign ministry denies any such linkage, a spokesman saying that such an arrangement would "not be right or proper". On Sunday, it emerged that the Russian president had recently said he had been assured by Shimon Peres, his Israeli counterpart, that Israel would not attack Iran. "Israeli President Peres said something important for us all: 'Israel does not plan to launch any strikes on Iran, we are a peaceful country and we will not do this'," Mr Medvedev said, in a Kremlin transcript of an interview he gave to the CNN news channel last Tuesday. But yesterday, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, appeared to dismiss the claim and said Israel had not given up the option of a military response to Tehran's nuclear programme. "I don't think that, with all due respect, the Russian president is authorised to speak for Israel and certainly we have not taken any option off the table," he said. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made an unannounced visit to Moscow this month, has been keen that Russia not sell anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran and also that Moscow supports international sanctions against Iran. Coincidentally or not, the arms deal being discussed between Saudi Arabia and Russia includes a very similar air-defence system to the one the latter has been proposing to sell to Iran. On top of that are about 150 attack and transport helicopters, more than 150 tanks and 250 infantry fighting vehicles - making the prospect of a deal with the Saudis a very lucrative one indeed for Moscow. The Russians appear confident the Saudi sale will go through. "We are working in this direction, we can confirm this," said a government spokesman in Moscow where local media are reporting that an agreement could be signed before the end of the year. Predictably, perhaps, the news has sounded alarm bells among conservative commentators in Washington, though the Obama administration appears relaxed about the deal. According to Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the right-wing Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, the "Russo-Saudi deal has a great geopolitical significance". He believes that the US pesident Barack Obama may be keeping his own counsel over the deal in the belief that it is a "down payment" to the Russians for supporting future sanctions against Iran. "The White House should take seriously the consequences of possible increases of Russian military sales to the House of Saud in the future. This deal allows Saudi Arabia to diversify its supply of weapons and strategic orientation. "Closer co-operation between Russia and Saudi Arabia could lead to closer co-ordination between Russia and Opec, including on oil production and pricing. "Such increasing cartelisation between the two largest oil producers on the planet may not be in the interest of oil-consuming countries. "What Russia is really after is the bridgehead and influence in the main oil-producing region of the world and the increase of geopolitical weight at the expense of the United States." Others, however, believe Russia has a long way to go before it will convince many Arab nations that it can be a reliable supplier of quality military hardware. "Russia is trying to restore some of its power in the Middle East, but its capability is limited because of the doubts about Russian technology," Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre, recently said. According to Jane's Defence Weekly: "The lack of interest in Russian weaponry dates back to the 1950s and 1960s when Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria pitted their Russian-made systems against Israel and its US-made weapons. "The instability of Russia's economy has only compounded concerns and accentuated reluctance within the Gulf states to acquire Russian equipment." However, many observers believe the impetus driving the Saudis towards an arms deal with the Russians is based more on wider, diplomatic considerations than on the memories of a few guns and tanks that did not work very well a half-century ago. dsapsted@thenational.ae * Additional reporting by Reuters

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