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Background. Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's security forces have relied on U.S. equipment, training, and service support for decades, officially as a counterbalance to Iranian military influence in the region, and to help protect the Kingdom from extremist attacks.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_United_States%E2%80%93Saudi_Arabia_arms_deal

Why is Saudi Arabia primarily buying weapons from the United States when it could hedge its bets and buy a lot of Chinese and Russian equipment as well? Is there a reason for this? How does Saudi Arabia stand to benefit from this over-reliance on American arms?

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    How would it benefit from buying weapons systems from multiple countries that are not compatible with each other?
    – Joe W
    Mar 28, 2023 at 0:49
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    It is buying some Chinese equipment, ballistic missiles in particular politics.stackexchange.com/questions/78689/… Mar 28, 2023 at 0:57
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    Saudi started its path to rich by working with Americans, so they have a tradition to buy US weapons. And since they are so rich, why do they have to buy the 2nd class Chinese weapon when they can buy the 1st class US weapons?
    – Faito Dayo
    Mar 28, 2023 at 4:03

3 Answers 3

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While the premise is true, they diversified a little bit.

  • the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force relies entirely on Chinese missiles. I think it's because the US didn't want to sell them equivalents. The also bought some Chinese self-propelled artillery and combat drones.

  • if you're willing to consider diversification to other Western countries, then while they don't buy all that much from the UK (13%) relative to the US (73%), they do buy a lot of the UK's exports:

    Saudi Arabia represented 40 percent of British arms exports between 2010 and 2019, and sources told The Times that the UK’s Typhoon aircraft programme would no longer be financially viable if the Saudis lost interest.

    In fact, as that piece discusses, that was one of the reasons why the UK was least excited about any arm embargoes on the Saudis due to the war in Yemen.

  • And since they're officially out of the Yemen war, Germany has agreed to resume substantial sales this year to the Saudis, after over a decade of reductions.

As to meat of the question, from the data I've seen over time, they started their buying spree after the 1973 oil embargo and it had various spurts, driven by the antagonism with Iran (after revolution in the latter) and then also with Iraq. US is considered the most reliable supplier as long as Iran has them declared as their "Great Satan" enemy. (Russia & China also deal with Iran.) And the Europeans dealt far more with Iraq, during the Iran-Iraq war.

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could hedge its beats and buy a lot of Chinese and Russian equipment as well?

I suspect, that if the political will was there (and additionally if Russian gear looked less unattractive at the moment), there is still a big problem with maintaining mixed fleets of weapons.

If you have tanks from country Y with radios that don't talk to your planes from country Z, this isn't a very good situation to be in.

Even more so nowadays as a lot of modern weaponry R&D goes into networking assets together so that say artillery can fire at a target it can't see itself, but that's in the line of sight of a helicopter. For all its faults, that is one of the F35's key selling points, being part of a distributed network of platforms.

Thus, while the budget lines supporting Block 4 are mainly concerned with upgrades organic to the fighter itself such as an improved panoramic cockpit display, they fit into a vision of networked warfare that transcends any particular platform. The fighter becomes a node in a broader warfighting architecture.

I don't know exactly how India approaches the problem, having a mixed fleet of French and Russian planes. I suspect not all that well, with likely difficulty coordinating those assets. See comments below, apparently India mitigates the issue both by customization from its local arms industry (India often insists on a lot of technology transfer in arms purchases) and being discerning about what they buy under what conditions in the first place. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be able to replicate India's technical solutions.

Same thing with Eastern Europe and their old Soviet era gear. You may find ways around it, if you the problem is forced on you (ex: Poland leaving the warm fuzzy embrace of the Warsaw Pact). But most militaries would rather not choose to go there.

Within NATO the problem is lessened because NATO interoperability but even then it's still sometimes an issue. For example, Canada's new fighter ended up being the problem-prone F35.

The Rafale was considered to be insufficiently interoperable with U.S. aircraft[

(the above may not have been totally true, but it was certainly used to "push" the F35s)

Not to mention that the US is not above playing hardball to dissuade exactly this kind of mix-and-match. Witness Turkey's S400 vs F35 tussle.

The U.S. has removed Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program, and Turkey will lose its production work on the jet by March 2020, following its acceptance of the S-400 Russian-made air defense system last Friday.

Choosing to switch over is certainly possible. But it's not something that you would do casually. Unless you knew exactly what you wanted to achieve and were very careful about planning. At the least, you'd want to acquire gear that didn't need integration with the rest too badly. Most countries "pick a side", tend towards a few primary weapon supplying countries and even fewer families of weapons (family as NATO vs Russia vs China vs xxx, as opposed to different countries).

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    I don't know exactly how India approaches the problem, having a mixed fleet of French and Russian planes. India has a dedicated defence research policy to indigenize defence technology and thus is quite capable in customising it - India Wants To Breathe Extra Life Into Its Old Jaguar Jets By Adding New Radars. So when it buys foreign weapons from multiple foreign vendors, it only buys platforms that it can customise or use with common parts (1/2).
    – sfxedit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:22
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    (where connectivity and inter-operability are required and important; for e.g. India has started using Israeli radars on its different jets). India also rejects platforms that don't allow such customisation and where it believes it has the competency to create its own alternate technology. E.g. Meteor missiles were rejected because its manufacturer refused to allow its integration with indian and Israeli radars that India has shifted to, and they were insisting we buy their radar. Instead, India has started building it own equivalent substitute of the missiles called Astra missiles. (2/2)
    – sfxedit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 2:35
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    Ah, interesting points. I knew India had a significant arms industry. But not that it had a focus on technical solutions to this problem. Which does make sense. Still, I think it is safe to say that what India can do this instance is not necessarily something many other countries can do and Saudi, specifically, is unlikely to be able to follow in India's footsteps. Mar 29, 2023 at 16:03
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Why is Saudi Arabia primarily buying weapons from the United States when it could hedge its bets and buy a lot of Chinese and Russian equipment as well? Is there a reason for this?

Mostly, it is a matter of historical inertia.

Historically, in the Camp David Accords of 1978, the U.S. bought peace for Israel, in the form at least, of tolerance of its existence and refraining from hostilities towards Israel, by providing military aid to Egypt.

A parallel deal had been in place with Saudi Arabia long before that time, in part to secure peace for Israel (under the rubric of "security" in the region), and in part to secure U.S. access to Saudi Arabian oil supplies:

In 1951, Washington and Riyadh signed the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, which became the basis of US arms sales to the kingdom and created a permanent US military training mission in Saudi Arabia.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the relationship continued to expand, as did the flow of US-made weapons to the kingdom.

Between 1950 and 1969, the US provided a total of $218m in foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the US's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).

By the early 1970s, as Britain was pulling out of the Gulf - a move that allowed Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to declare independence - the US saw a chance to double-down on its own interests in the region.

And between 1970 and 1972, the total value of US arms sales to Riyadh skyrocketed from $14.8m to $296.3m, according to the DSCA.

That increase in weapons purchases coincided with an incredible boost in oil revenues for the Saudi government, which pulled in $25.7bn in 1975 - up from $1.2bn in 1970.

Today, Saudi Arabia only supplies about 9 percent of all crude oil imports to the US, as Washington focuses on domestic resources. US weapons, however, continue to flow freely into the kingdom.

Between 2013 and 2017, Riyadh purchased about 18 percent of all US arms sales, totalling around $9bn, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks weapons flows worldwide.

The U.S. was interested in Saudi Arabian oil back in 1951, because a U.S. company got 50% of Saudi Arabian oil profits at the time:

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America was economically strengthened in 1933 when Standard Oil of California was given the concession to explore Saudi Arabian lands for oil. The subsidiary of this company, regarded as California Arabian Standard Oil Company, later dubbed Saudi Aramco carried out a fruitful exploration in 1938, finding oil for the first time. The relationship between the two nations strengthened throughout the next decade, establishing a full diplomatic relationship through a symbolic acceptance of an American envoy in Saudi Arabia. . . . The trade relationship between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long revolved around two central concepts: security and oil. Throughout the next two decades, the 50s and 60s, relations between the two nations grew significantly stronger. In 1950, Aramco and Saudi Arabia agreed on a 50/50 profit distribution of the oil discovered in Saudi Arabia.

After seven decades of receiving military aid from the U.S., Saudi Arabia fell into the inertia of continuing to make most of their arms purchases from U.S. firms (the U.S. wasn't going to provide these countries with military aid to purchase somebody else's weapons) and there are compatibility issues to some extent once you start down that road.

As another answer notes, this procurement inertia has finally started to fade after more than seven decades, but is still far from entirely gone.

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