BEIRUT: Greece lends a Patriot air defense missile system to Saudi Arabia to help protect critical energy facilities from Houthi attacks and deal with Turkish muscle flexing in the region.
“We have signed an agreement to move a Patriot battery here to Saudi Arabia,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said on April 20. “This is a big step forward for our country as regards cooperation with the Gulf countries and also a contribution to the overall security of energy sources for the West. “
It is the first formal agreement with such a broad scope between the two countries and Saudi officials believe the Kingdom is forging bilateral relations with states sharing similar concerns.
“The idea is to deal with Turkish muscle flexion in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. We believe Riyadh is responding to Turkey by establishing an alliance with rival Ankara Greece and conducting exercises in the neighboring region, ”officials told me.
Last month, Athens and Riyadh organized joint exercises to develop the skills of air and technical crews and support their preparation and exchange experiences in all areas. The Saudi F-15s and the Greek F-16, Mirage 2000 and F-4 Phantom fighters conducted exercises in attack and defense formations and close air support formations.
“We wonder if this is not rather signaling to the Biden administration to discourage it from taking action against the kingdom?” they add.
However, regional officials and experts say the move does not constitute a major strategic change in the region.
Saudi defense leaders are likely using this deal for geopolitical purposes. “Engaging with Greece on such an important aspect of military technology sends a strong political signal,” said Yezid Sayegh, senior researcher at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. Break the defense.
“The real question is, who is the target? The Saudis have yet to invest in improving relations with Turkey, unlike the warming UAE. But, nonetheless, I don’t really see a compelling reason for the Saudis to put pressure on Turkey at the moment, ”he said.
The Saudis can also demonstrate that they can look to other air defense sources and solutions. “They could rely on worsening US-Turkish relations, at the heart of which is US discontent with Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system,” Sayegh added.
By dealing with another NATO ally, they might calculate that they can highlight the difference between themselves and Turkey – that is, “unlike Turkey’s hostile behavior and threat to US national security, Saudi Arabia is a staunch friend ”.
Another reason is that the security of the kingdom is a top priority, retired Kuwaiti Air Force Colonel Zafer Alajmi told me.
“The Gulf country is under great pressure from Houthi attacks and must protect its skies at all costs,” Alajmi said. “With the United States now withdrawing its military equipment from the Kingdom, the Saudis do not have the luxury of choosing. They will need to choose a US NATO ally to acquire air defense to bolster their defenses and secure global energy supplies. “
It comes at a time when President Biden has ordered the Pentagon to begin withdrawing certain military capabilities from Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missiles, and when the Houthi attacks on Saudi oil installations and military sites are on the rise. more frequent.
The Houthis in Yemen recently claimed to have launched drone attacks against the facilities of Saudi energy giant Aramco. According to Reuters, the Houthi army spokesman said on Twitter that the group targeted King Khalid airbase with two drones and hit a Saudi oil company Aramco facility with a drone in the Saudi city of Jizan. , southwest of Saudi Arabia. He later said the Houthis launched a third strike on the air base.
Yet, no realistic prospect of purchasing weapons of any real importance seems imminent.
“Greece offers very little military value to the Saudis because its armed forces suffer from aging equipment and their defense industry is not advanced,” Sayegh told me. “They are also not free to transfer whatever they want to Saudi Arabia if it contains American components.”
But this adds however to the wider political divergence between Turkey and the other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, “in which France plays the main role”, he continued.
However, the proper use of air defense assets remains a major challenge.
“First, they already have a missile defense provided by the United States and would normally get it from the United States if they needed more. In addition, Abkaik’s attack showed that they misused their air defense means and were very slow to respond, ”Sayegh said. In other words, “their problem and their needs are not with the equipment but with the human system that operates it”.