BEIRUT — The Saudi military has had a busy March, conducting eight exercises involving simulated attacks on oil facilities and interoperability drills with other nations. Observers say the reason for the kingdom’s activity of late is twofold: strengthen geopolitical relations and prepare for asymmetric threats.
But as Saudi Arabia drills alongside its neighbors, the country may have to deal with Mediterranean rivals Turkey and Greece.
Tension between Greece and Turkey flared last year over maritime boundaries and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, leading to a military buildup in the area that featured warships from the two countries facing off.
However, in a sign that relations might improve, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said March 17 that his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, is set to 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 designed to build trust between the neighboring countries.
“When it comes to cooperation with other states like Sudan and Greece, Saudi Arabia is actively exploring how to strengthen bilateral and multilateral security cooperation with regional states that share similar concerns about Turkey flexing its muscles in the Mediterranean and the Red sea. It is all these states’ interests to try to cooperate in the maritime domain,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Nerguizian also said the Saudi exercises should be viewed in the context of the kingdom facing the threats of irregular warfare and drone attacks, such as terrorist groups and the Sept. 14, 2019, attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities.
“Increased cooperation with countries like the United States, France and neighboring [United Arab Emirates] fits within the context of addressing both conventional challenges tied to the readiness of Saudi forces and, in the larger context, of trying to adapt tactics and cooperation with allies to deal with an increasing number of irregular threats,” he told Defense News.
What took place this month?
The Saudi and French navies joined forces March 10 for White Shark 21 to enhance security cooperation in the region. And the Saudi and Sudanese navies kicked off Al-Fulk 4 on March 21 at King Faisal Naval Base, where the two services practiced ship inspections, fighting in urban areas and in buildings, and combat patrols. They also tested their primary and secondary weaponry skills, as reported by the official Saudi Press Agency. Days later, on March 23, Saudi Arabia’s Western Fleet participated in Red Sea drills with its Indonesian counterpart.
As practice against attacks on oil facilities, the Royal Saudi Navy conducted a joint military drill with domestic units, including the Interior Ministry’s Eastern Province Border Guards, the Presidency of State Security, as well as the Energy Ministry represented by Saudi Aramco and the Aramco Gulf Operations Company.
For its part, the Royal Saudi Air Force carried out a joint military exercise with the U.S. Air Force to raise the level of joint combat readiness and boost cooperation. The Royal Saudi Air Force also brought its F-15s to the UAE for the Desert Flag exercise.
Highlighting the growing relationship between Greece and Saudi Arabia, Falcon Eye 1 featured the countries’ air forces performing sorties for offensive and defensive counteroperations drills.
U.S. and Saudi land forces also gathered in the kingdom for Falcon Claws 3, a joint exercise aimed at strengthening military relations, exchanging expertise and concepts, and improving combat readiness to face external threats.
In addition, beginning on March 27, the Royal Saudi Air Force and Pakistan Air Force will take part in a two-week air exercise.
Abdullah Al Junaid, a Bahraini strategic expert and political researcher, anticipates an increase in military drills between European and Middle Eastern states, citing security and stability in the Mediterranean basin as critical to that of the entire Middle East. Regional states also want to ensure safety of navigation in the Arabian Gulf, he added.
“Military exercises in all their forms come within the framework of raising the efficiency and readiness of all branches of the Saudi Armed Forces, and the security and safety of navigation in the Arabian Gulf comes on top of priorities for all Arab Gulf states. And the programs to develop the Eastern Fleet of the Royal Saudi Navy confirm the growing regional role in securing navigation not only in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, but this concept will expand in the future to include the Arabian Sea, within an imperative strategy — security of the whole of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Where does Turkey come in?
Earlier this month, two Saudi Arabian manufacturers announced they will co-produce the Karayel-SU drone under license from the Turkish company Vestel Savunma. While the industrial cooperation is a good sign for ties between Turkey and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will the Saudi-Greek drills harm that relationship?
Turkish defense analyst Calgar Kurc doesn’t think so. Turkey’s show of force in the region seems to have resulted in the emergence of a counter group, he said, and the country wants to put an end to the resulting isolation.
“The KSA-Greece drills show KSA’s support for Greece’s regional policies, which are counter to Turkish interest. Turkey has realized that the military show of force is not enough in the Eastern Mediterranean without support from the important actors in the region,” Kurc told Defense News. “I think we are observing a shift in Turkey’s behavior in the region. Turkey’s priority now is to end its isolation by repairing the damaged relations. This is what we are seeing with Turkey’s rapprochement with Egypt and KSA. At this point, the drills would not have a significant effect on the process because the priority is to mend the relations.”
However, he acknowledged, Saudi Arabia and Turkey still have much to resolve. “There are some inherent sources of competition between Turkey and KSA. Aligning KSA and Turkey’s interest in the East Med seems difficult at this point.”
Additionally, industrial cooperation still has a ways to go, he noted.
“Deepening the defense-industrial cooperation would depend on whether Turkey and KSA could resolve their deep-running disagreements in the region. Furthermore, KSA has many potential suppliers who would be willing to cooperate with Saudi defense companies. The competition would be tough for Turkey,” Kurc said. “The issue could become more complicated as Turkish companies increasingly have difficulties in reaching Western technologies, [which prevents sales] to third countries.”
Turkey and the West (particularly the United States) have been butting heads over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Until that issue is resolved, it appears Turkey’s planned sale of T129 Atak helicopters to Pakistan — which is already delayed — won’t occur. Because American technology is part of the aircraft’s design, the Turkish company selling the helicopters must first secure U.S. 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 aspires to growing relations with countries within its geopolitical space.”
“Turkey and Greece each have their own place within the Saudi strategic vision. It is a mistake to assume that Saudi relations are formed outside the framework 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 seemingly contradictory relationships the kingdom has with Greece and Turkey.
Added Nerguizian: “[Saudi Arabia’s] overtures tied to Turkey and cooperation on drones do not appear — at least for the time being — to be part of a larger strategy.”
He said Greece is left to navigate these ambiguous policies if it wants to further solidify cooperation with Saudi Arabia, in spite of the kingdom’s ties to Turkey.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.