Saudi Arabia’s modernization considerations for its West Coast fleet
By Matthew Hedges
The political volatility that has rocked Saudi Arabia since the ascension of King Salman in 2015 has been felt very sharply by the Kingdom’s security apparatus. Changes have been made to the executive level of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), Ministry of Interior (MOI), Ministry of Defence (MOD), and also at the operational level, where regiment level commanders have been reshuffled.
While these changes were orchestrated in early 2015, the appointment of Admiral Fahd bin Abdulla Al-Ghufaili to the position of Commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) in November 2017 signifies a declaration of intent to propel Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea and Blue Water capabilities.
While he is now tasked with driving the modernisation of the RSNF, there is a growing belief that the Saudi Naval Expansion Program (SNEP II) on the east coast needs to be re-evaluated and substantial funding redirected to promote the modernization of the RSNF west coast fleet.
The RSNF’s split between its Gulf and Red Sea environments determines contrasting capabilities. This factor has resulted in areas of consistent procurement engagement, with the US monopolising assistance to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern fleet and European states delivering capabilities to the Western fleet.
While US military assistance to Saudi Arabia seems unbreakable, European reservations concerning the Kingdom’s human rights record and regional foreign policy strategy has slowed defense engagement between Europe and the Kingdom. In parallel, Russia has increased its regional footprint and is engaging in a wider array of security engagements.
Likewise, a wider array of non-traditional security partners are providing the Kingdom and other Gulf nations with an array of alternative security capabilities.
Underpinning the Kingdom’s modern approach to defense procurement is the legacy of the Obama administration and the self-declared requirement to augment foreign defense sales for domestic, economic, and social gain. Saudi Arabia’s offset programs of the 1980s and 90s illustrate many potential benefits for Riyadh, and act as a symbol for Vision 2030’s defense-centered strategy.
While the General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) and the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) formulate their strategies for a developed Saudi defence industry, there is currently a gap in the field of domestic naval capability. In the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE), there is a capable indigenous defense sector where the manufacturing, assembly, and research & development (R&D) of naval platforms is already well underway.
While the development of the Kingdom’s economy influences the long-term spending behavior of the Saudi military, the expanding focus and role of the RSNF has prompted a requirement for a wider array of capabilities and competencies. This requirement has increasingly seen the RSNF engage in Blue Water environments and has contributed to a growing array of required capabilities.
The requirement to develop joint capabilities has proliferated into the RSNF whereby a maritime security center is being constructed in Jeddah, where a battalion of former Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) soldiers will act as the foundation for the Saudi equivalent of the British Royal Marines.
Iran’s desire to deliver an offensive capability through its proxies in the Red Sea has largely prompted the shift in focus for the RSNF’s west coast modernization program. The Kingdom’s engagement in Yemen has stagnated amid concerns of the coalition’s conduct in the conflict; however, as the Iranians continue to arm the Houthis, there are plans for Saudi Arabia to formalize its presence in Yemen by establishing up to three naval bases.
Saudi troops are already stationed in Ghayda port in South Yemen and serve as the foundation for the development for a formal presence there, while sites in Socotra and Hudaydah are also touted as possible future posts for the Saudi Navy. These would concurrently fall under the RSNF Western Command.
Procurement options and commercial engagement
Saudi Arabia has long been in discussion with Lockheed Martin over the potential order for the littoral combat ship (LCS) or, as the export variant is known, the Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC). In step with MbS’s visit to the US, Lockheed received a $481million contract to start the construction of 4 MMSC’s for Saudi Arabia.
The deal had been perceived to be under threat over concerns of the platform cost, marginal improvement in capability, and increased requirement to expand the Western fleet. The announcement has shown however that the decision-making hierarchy within the Saudi Kingdom is extremely fluid and prone to surprise, ensuring a market of plenty for US contractors.
Elsewhere, France made an initial and concerted effort to court the new Saudi leadership. There were elements within the Saudi Navy that wanted to procure French vessels for its Western fleet; however, commercial engagement from the French scuppered their opportunity. While, politically, Francois Hollande and his successor Emmanuel Macron made overt gestures to MbS, the wider French political and military system has crippled its relationship with Riyadh.
Leading Paris efforts to expand its presence in the Middle East is the Office Français d’exportation d’armement or as it is commonly known, ODAS. On more than one occasion, figures within MbS’s leadership have complained of ODAS and the conduct of French defense companies attempting to sell into Saudi Arabia.
As a result, it is claimed that France will have no remote possibility of selling a system into Saudi Arabia. During MbS’s visit to Paris, he held talks with Macron over defense sales. The two agreed to establish a new channel of dialogue, one that would circumvent ODAS. This strategy could result in significant gains for the French defense industry, as the Kingdom has been a market that has eluded their overt participation in recent times.
German-Saudi defense relations have been damaged by Berlin’s negative and public assessment of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and Riyadh’s wider engagement within the MENA region. While Saudi Arabia has a lot of interest in German-made systems, it is likely that there will be a process of consolidation and integration as Riyadh looks to merge the 48 German-manufactured patrol boats destined for the Saudi Border and Coast Guards.
The Saudi Coast Guard is undergoing a major restructuring, as it increasingly deals with human trafficking, piracy, and illegal arms transfers on the Kingdom’s western coast. In a bid to improve the Kingdom’s defenses, the coast guard has been placed under the command of the Navy’s Western fleet commander.
This means that as Saudi Arabia expands its presence beyond its immediate borders, it will be able to maintain the security of passage through the Bab al Mandeb straights and along the Red Sea. Assisting the Saudi Coast Guards will be their Egyptian counterparts, and as both customers of German patrol vessels, it remains an area for future German assistance, should domestic politics allow it.
Circumventing these issues, Riyadh has directly engaged Navantia, with whom a deal for 5, plus an additional 3, Avante 2200 corvettes has been placed. Praised for their modular and efficient design, the Navantia corvettes illustrate an example of how the MbS leadership is looking to engage partners for its defense needs.
While these are classed as corvettes, due to their size and system employed, they act more as frigates. Madrid does not face the same domestic pressure over defense ties, and as a country with a weaker economy and more liberal technology and IP laws than its American, British, French, and German counterparts, it presents itself as a willing partner for defense cooperation with the GCC.
MbS arrived in Madrid from Paris and there he signed a $2.7bn letter of intent (LOI) for the 5 corvettes, subsystems, life-cycle maintenance, and crew training programs. In addition, Navantia signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) to create a joint venture (JV) to help deliver the vessels.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is exploring greater defense ties with Russia, but while the current relationship is warmer than it has been for many years, there are still several reservations that are preventing more advanced cooperation. Moscow’s relationship with Tehran and Damascus frustrates Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states.
Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s propagation of Arab Nationalism and support for Nasser in opposition to the GCC monarchies is still a lingering weight in the Saudi and GCC mindset toward Russia. None the less, the Saudi Assistant Defense Minister for Executive Affairs, the former CEO of STC, Khaled Biyari, is now holding the file for the Kingdom’s defense relationship with Russia and is exploring multiple avenues for enhanced cooperation.
Modernization in many forms
While Riyadh is closing in on the selection of platforms for their Western fleet, the RSNF is undergoing a wider reconstruction that has seen its personnel overhauled. While, previously, tribal and family affiliation had often been a determining factor in a candidate’s career trajectory, the MbS leadership is demonstrating an appreciation for technocratic and professional morals.
The RSNF’s professional drive is likewise being managed by a core group of technocratic and professional figures. Their hands-on approach will provide the necessary ingredient to drive efforts and understand the current limitations, when others may have overlooked similar considerations.
As budgetary concerns drive MbS economic reforms and promote domestic agendas such as Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi military procurement will increasingly and aggressively evaluate commercial and contractual policies, such as offsets and other procurement mechanisms.
Should Saudi Arabia be serious about its pursuit of realizing an indigenous defense industry, it can take lessons learned from the neighboring UAE, whereby the first of its order of 6 corvettes was built by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie (CMN) in France, and the remaining 5 in Abu Dhabi in order to establish a domestic capability in manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO).
As a result, the UAE is marketing its corvettes to a wide array of customers in a bid to sell Emirati-produced ships. The newly announced JV between SAMI and Navantia illustrates how Saudi Arabia is learning from the UAE and other states in a bid to establish and develop its own indigenous defense industry. As they move forward, it is likely Riyadh will prioritize partners who are willing to share technology and IP in an attempt to develop knowledge within the Kingdom and thus contribute to Vision 2030.
While Saudi Arabia sits in a region of heightened threat potential, the Saudi Armed Forces have predominantly looked north to Iraq and Iran for threats. Heavily supported by the US, UK, France, and an increasingly stronger alliance with some GCC states, Saudi Arabia is now perceivably free to pursue the development and modernization of its Western fleet.
As it has long been neglected and isolated from a wider engagement, the expansion of Iranian interference in the Red Sea area and the proliferation of criminal activities is bolstering support for an expanded naval capability. Through the alignment of personnel and the pragmatic approach to defense procurement, the MbS-led military apparatus is accelerating its west coast naval modernisation at a startling rate.