Saudis to buy 150 Russian helicopters


Under the deal, Russia will supply Mi-8 and Mi-17 transports and Mi-35 attack helicopters, plus spare parts, weapons and related services, one Gulf military official said.

Officials with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms trading agency, declined to confirm or comment on the deal.

Ilya Yakushev, a spokesman for Rosoboronexport subsidiary Oboronprom, which controls the Russian helicopter industry, confirmed that a memorandum of intention had been signed between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but he declined to confirm whether a contract had been inked.

The bid beat a French offer of Eurocopter multirole helicopters, the Gulf official said.

“The fact that this is the first time Saudi Arabia opted for a Russian deal makes it a significant political event,” said Qassem Jaafar, a Doha-based Middle East defense analyst. “This is a major Russian breakthrough to the Gulf region.”

The deal follows two visits to the Arab Gulf region by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first for a Russian leader. In February, Putin talked with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and other senior Saudi officials about potential defense sales to the Western-dominated defense market, Saudi sources said.

Saudi officials are still mulling a $ 1 billion Russian offer of 150 T-90 tanks plus an unspecified number of armored personnel vehicles.

“The Russians clearly saw an opportunity opening up in the region and moved in to gain on it,” said Theodore Karasik, a Middle East analyst at RAND Corp. in Los Angeles.

But the analysts also see a strategic aspect to the Saudi choice.

“The Saudis want Moscow to alter its attitude towards Iran, and to at least be passive in front of joint Gulf-Western efforts to bring about more pressure and sanctions on Tehran to force it to stop its uranium enrichment program,” Karasik said.

U.S. officials have accused Russia and China of blocking efforts at the United Nations Security Council to enact tougher sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment activities.

Ruslan Pukhov, an analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think tank, called the deal a “revolutionary” achievement because the Saudis are among the world’s biggest arms buyers.

He also said that the choice was politically motivated.

“In big arms deals such as this one, buyers seek not only new weapons, but the political support of a seller,” Pukhov said. “The deal demonstrates that for the Saudis, Russia’s foreign policy approaches, especially in the Middle East, are more important than that of France.”

Moscow has long been courting Riyadh on energy and industrial cooperation, as well as offering its arms.

Earlier it looked like the helicopter deal might go to Eurocopter with some buys from Sikorsky, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said

But at $ 2.2 billion, “the Saudis probably got a very good deal” from the Russians, he said — or perhaps the Saudis are using the Russian offer to force others to lower their prices.

As for swaying Russia’s support for Iran, that will take more than a $ 2.2 billion helicopter sale, Aboulafia said: “There are momentous procurement decisions out there in the world. This isn’t one of them.”

The Mi-35 helicopter, called the Hind-E by NATO, is built at the Rostvertol plant in Rostov-on-Don and comes in combat, assault, transport and medical evacuation versions. The Mi-17 helicopter, called Hip-H by NATO, is in production at factories in Kazan and Ulan-Ude.

France Loses, Again

The Saudi helicopter bid was the latest of several failed French sales efforts, including ones in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and |Singapore.

Officials in Paris played down the loss and evinced optimism for several ongoing and future |tenders.

“There were rumors of this circulating during the minister’s visit to Riyadh,” one French official said in Paris. “This is not very serious for us.”

There are delays on the NH90 transport helicopter, so France lacks a product “on the shelf,” the official said.

The official acknowledged that the NH90’s purchase price was higher than that of its Russian competitors, but its maintenance costs were expected to be lower, the official said.

“We are not giving up on anything. We are cautiously optimistic,” the official said.

France hopes to sign deals with the Saudi authorities on satellites and intelligence and naval systems, and a large border control contract is still pending.

France’s defense minister, Hervé Morin, visited Riyadh in October, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and President Nicolas Sarkozy are due to visit in the coming months. French diplomats say Morin’s trip went down well with Saudi leaders.

France is no longer trying to sell Dassault’s Rafale fighter jet to Saudi Arabia, Morin said Oct. 28 in Riyadh.

Business daily La Tribune reported Nov. 1 that France has signed a contract with the Saudi government for three Airbus military tankers, instead of a planned two. The French also are seeking to sell a search-and-rescue version of the Cougar helicopter to the Royal Saudi Air Force, along with Fennec light helicopters for training and up to 10 naval NH90s for the Sawari 2 frigate.

In the longer term, perhaps 18 months, Paris hopes to sell four Scorpene attack submarines and four FREMM multimission frig-ates, La Tribune reported.

A spokeswoman for Eurocopter, a French-based subsidiary of EADS, said the company could not comment on the Russian deal.

“These are government-to-government negotiations and as Eurocopter is not directly involved in the discussions, we cannot comment,” she said.

Eurocopter had supplied specifications and prices to the French government for the Saudi offer. A French government agency, Sofresa, negotiates arms exports with Saudi Arabia.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *