Saudi Arabia’s Naval Capabilities Will Balloon Thanks To Huge U.S. Arms Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump will unveil the largest single American weapons sale to Saudi Arabia to date during his trip to the kingdom, which began on May 19, 2017. The deal will include weapons and equipment for the Royal Saudi air and land forces, which have been critical in Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen, as well as ballistic missile defense systems essential to for the country to counter Iran’s missile forces during a conflict. However, it may be new support for the relatively small Royal Saudi Navy that speaks more to the country’s desire to project even greater power in the Middle East and beyond.

On May 18, 2017, The New York Times published an insider’s look into how White House advisor Jared Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law, had been actively involved in the arms sales, which many expect will be worth between $100 and $110 billion in immediate deals and up to $350 billion in total over the next decade. In particular, Kushner had personally intervened, as is the style of the Trump administration, to get the Saudis a discount on components of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system – the same weapon the United States had very publicly deployed to South Korea earlier in 2017.

Also on May 18, 2017, Bloomberg confirmed that the Pentagon and their Saudi counterparts would finalize a $6 billion deal with Lockheed Martin for four modified versions of the company’s Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ship – six percent of the total U.S. arms package. The rest of the deal will include thousands of precision guided munitions, 50 CH-47 cargo helicopters, 60 smaller UH-60 transport choppers, 115 M1A2S Abrams tanks, among other items.

But buried among the palace intrigue and talk of advanced aircraft, precision guided munitions, and anti-ballistic missile defenses, was mention of unspecified “maritime assets” that the Saudi Arabia hoped to acquire from the United States. This would mean “ships” the authors explained, “so the Saudis can assume more of the burden of policing the Persian Gulf and Red Sea against Iranian aggression.”

The warships are the center-piece of the American-funded Saudi Naval Enhancement Program II (SNEP II), which began in 2008. The United States, and the U.S. Navy in particular, supported supported the first SNEP in the 1980s, where the Saudi Arabia purchased a large fleet of modern naval vessels, ranging from frigates to small patrol boats, from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries. After this modernization project, Riyadh boasted the largest and best equipped naval force in the Persian Gulf region. 

Jacques Lahitte via Wikimedia

The Al Makkah, one of Saudi Arabia’s four Al Riyadh-class frigates.

These ships formed the core of the country’s naval forces more or less as they continued to exist three decades later. The Saudi Navy’s only addition since then was its purchase of four modified French La Fayette-class frigates, which it named the Al Riyadh

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