BEIRUT – The Saudi military had a busy march that held eight simulated attacks on oil installations and interoperability exercises with other nations. Observers say the main reason the kingdom has been operating recently has been twofold: strengthening geopolitical ties and preparing for asymmetric threats.
With Saudi Arabia training alongside its neighbors, the country may have to grapple with Mediterranean rivals Turkey and Greece.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey increased over the past year over sea borders and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, fueling a military boom in the area where warships from both countries competed.
In a sign that relations could improve, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on March 17 that his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias would visit Turkey on April 14. The announcement came after senior Turkish and Greek diplomats held exploratory talks in Athens – part of a series of such meetings to build trust between neighboring countries.
“When it comes to working with other states like Sudan and Greece, Saudi Arabia is actively exploring ways to strengthen bilateral and multilateral security cooperation with regional states that have similar concerns that Turkey is flexing its muscles in the Mediterranean and Red Lets the sea play. It is in the interest of all these states to work together in the maritime field, ”said Aram Nerguizian, Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Nerguizian also said the Saudi exercises should be seen in the context of the kingdom facing threats from irregular warfare and drone strikes such as terrorist groups and the attack on Abqaiq and Khurais oil factories in Saudi Arabia on September 14, 2019.
“Increased cooperation with countries such as the USA, France and neighboring countries [United Arab Emirates] fits into the context of both addressing conventional challenges associated with the readiness of the Saudi armed forces and, in the larger context, trying to adjust tactics and cooperation with allies to cope with an increasing number of irregular threats, “said he told Defense News.
What happened this month
The Saudi and French navies joined forces on March 10 for White Shark 21 to improve security cooperation in the region. And the Saudi and Sudanese navies launched Al-Fulk 4 on March 21 at King Faisal Naval Base, where the two services conducted ship inspections, fought in urban areas and inside buildings, and fought patrols. They also tested their primary and secondary weapon skills, as reported by the Saudi official press agency. Days later, on March 23, Saudi Arabia’s western fleet and its Indonesian counterpart took part in exercises on the Red Sea.
As a practice against attacks on oil installations, the Royal Saudi Navy conducted a joint military exercise with domestic units, including the Eastern Province Border Guards of the Ministry of the Interior, the Presidency for State Security, and the Saudi Aramco and Gulf of Aramco Department of Energy Operating Company.
For its part, the Royal Saudi Air Force conducted a joint military exercise with the US Air Force to increase joint combat readiness and promote cooperation. The Royal Saudi Air Force also brought their F-15 to the UAE for the desert flag exercise.
Falcon Eye 1 highlighted the growing ties between Greece and Saudi Arabia, showing the air forces of the countries conducting missions for offensive and defensive counter-operations.
The U.S. and Saudi land forces also gathered in the kingdom for Falcon Claws 3, a joint exercise aimed at strengthening military ties, sharing expertise and concepts, and improving preparedness for external threats.
In addition, the Royal Saudi Air Force and the Pakistan Air Force will participate in a two-week aerial exercise starting March 27.
Abdullah Al Junaid, a Bahraini strategy expert and political researcher, expects an increase in military exercises between European and Middle Eastern states and cites security and stability in the Mediterranean area as critical for that of the entire Middle East. The regional states also want to ensure the safety of shipping in the Arabian Gulf, he added.
“Military exercises in all forms are part of increasing the efficiency and readiness of all branches of the Saudi armed forces, and the safety of shipping in the Arabian Gulf is a top priority for all Arabian Gulf states. And the Royal Saudi Navy’s Eastern Fleet development programs confirm the growing regional role in securing shipping not only in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, but this concept will be expanded in the future to include the Arabian Sea in a compelling strategy. Security of the entire Arabian Peninsula. “
Where is Turkey from?
Earlier this month, two Saudi Arabian manufacturers announced that they would jointly produce the Karayel SU drone under license from the Turkish company Vestel Savunma. While industrial cooperation bodes well for relations between Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will the Saudi-Greek exercises harm that relationship?
The Turkish defense analyst Calgar Kurc doesn’t think so. Turkey’s show of force in the region seems to have led to the emergence of an opposing group, he said, and the country wants to end the resulting isolation.
“The KSA-Greece exercises show that KSA supports Greece’s regional policy, which runs counter to Turkish interests. Turkey has recognized that the military show of force in the eastern Mediterranean will not be enough without the support of key players in the region, “Kurc told Defense News. “I think we are seeing a change in Turkey’s behavior in the region. Turkey’s priority now is to end its isolation by repairing the damaged relationships. We see this in Turkey’s rapprochement with Egypt and KSA. At this point, the exercises would not have a significant impact on the process as improving relationships is a priority. “
However, he acknowledged that Saudi Arabia and Turkey still have much to solve. “There are some inherent sources of competition between Turkey and KSA. At this point it seems difficult to reconcile KSA and Turkey’s interest in the Eastern Mediterranean. “
In addition, industrial cooperation still has a lot to do.
“The deepening of defense-industrial cooperation would depend on whether Turkey and KSA could resolve their profound differences of opinion in the region. In addition, KSA has many potential suppliers who would be willing to work with Saudi defense companies. The competition would be tough for Turkey, ”said Kurc. “The problem could get more complicated as Turkish companies increasingly struggle to reach Western technologies. [which prevents sales] in third countries. “
Turkey and the West (especially the United States) have been considering Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Until this problem is resolved, Turkey’s proposed sale of T129 Atak helicopters to Pakistan – which is already delayed – does not appear to take place. Since American technology is part of the aircraft design, the Turkish company selling the helicopters must first secure US export licenses before delivery can take place.
Saudi Arabia is an economic and military powerhouse in the region, Al Junaid noted, “and it is natural that it should strive to develop relations with countries in its geopolitical space.”
“Turkey and Greece each have their own place within the strategic vision of Saudi Arabia. It is a mistake to assume that Saudi relations are formed outside of the scope of its responsibility as it is the central state in the Arab world and other countries must deal with it on that basis, ”he said of the kingdom’s seemingly contradictory relations with Greece and Turkey.
Nerguizian added: “[Saudi Arabia’s] Turkey-related overtures and cooperation on drones do not seem – at least for now – to be part of a broader strategy. “
He said Greece will be forced to steer these ambiguous policies if it is to continue cementing cooperation with Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom’s ties with Turkey.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.