Why would Saudi Arabia be interested in acquiring Turkish drones?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently suggested that Saudi Arabia is interested in purchasing some of his country’s domestically built drones. Why would the Saudi kingdom, which has been at odds with Turkey on many issues in recent years, be interested in the Turkish technology?

When recently criticising a joint drill between Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s rival Greece, Erdoğan revealed that “right now there is a request from Saudi Arabia for armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) from Turkey. These are the latest developments”.

He did not give any details. His comments did, however, coincide with news that two Saudi manufacturers will begin co-producing the Turkish-built Karayel-SU medium-altitude, long-endurance drone. Riyadh had shown interest in that particular drone since 2017.

A fleet of Karayel-SU drones would not substantially bolster Saudi Arabia’s military power but other Turkish-built drones, such as the Bayraktar TB2, might.

“So far the drones, the Karayel-SU, that are known to be being publicly manufactured by Saudi Arabia do not substantially add to the kingdom’s military capabilities as they are systems that Saudi Arabia has already had,” Ryan Bohl, Stratfor Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told Ahval News.

“However, if defence cooperation can deepen and the Saudis can get access to drones like the Bayraktar TB2, then they would be a marked potential advantage for the Saudis,” he added. “It remains to be seen, however, if Turkey is willing to part with such advanced systems to a country that is often a regional rival.”

Growing Saudi interest in Turkish drones may have been piqued by their successful  deployment over the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and the Nagorno-Karabakh throughout 2020. Another factor may be Riyadh’s otherwise limited options for acquiring such systems.

“I believe that the performance of Turkish drones in recent conflicts, and especially the media coverage of their role in them, definitely improves Turkey’s ability to market them,” Sim Tack, Chief Military Analyst at Force Analysis, told Ahval News.

“The overlap between air defence systems that Turkish drones encountered in these theatres, and those fielded by Saudi Arabia’s most likely adversaries (in Yemen, Iran, and Syria, for example) is also likely to boost the perception of utility in Saudi Arabia’s eyes,” he added.

This is a very important factor for a country considering acquiring drones, particularly armed ones. Turkey is one of a relatively few high-profile providers in the international market for such weapons systems.

Tack noted that while there is still attention among buyers to factors such as cost and overall performance capabilities, “in many cases, export restrictions or political conditions have pushed countries to buy outside the Western world”.

Bohl also pointed to Riyadh’s “relatively limited options to diversify its own defence industry”.

“The Saudis cannot immediately act on the warming trend towards Israel to develop these technologies, and at the same time, there are clear potential restrictions coming from the United States that prevent deeper cooperation there,” Bohl said.

For years, the United States refused to export armed drones to many countries, including its allies in the Persian Gulf, so as not to violate its signatory commitment to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). China, on the other hand, stepped in and sold drones to countries the United States would not. The United Arab Emirates, for example, bought Chinese-built Wing Loong II armed drones and used them in the conflicts in Yemen and Libya.

Now that the UAE has normalised relations with Israel, it will likely be able to buy at least some of the many drones Israel offers for export, drones which also demonstrated their effectiveness during last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Tack noted that, in addition to its limited options, the Saudi kingdom has “also faced a significant amount of negative press over its part in the conflict in Yemen and this has resulted in many European states and the United States limiting or halting their defence sales to the kingdom”.

“Given Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to develop a military industry within the kingdom, potential requirements related to technology transfer could also be a non-starter for these Western countries,” he said.

The deal for co-production of the Karayel-SU was clearly an example of Riyadh’s desire to gain the knowhow to develop such systems locally.

Even if Saudi Arabia can still acquire similar systems from the United States and other Western countries, Tack argues that it could make sense for the kingdom to have “an anticipatory shift towards other defence suppliers”.

“Other countries in the Middle East, such as the UAE, have long exercised consistent diversification of defence acquisition to avoid building up dependencies,” he said.

The UAE’s procurement of Wing Loong IIs is an apt example of this. Tack acknowledged that while Saudi Arabia may have a similar motive in procuring Turkish drones, a Saudi purchase of such systems “is somewhat more controversial than the UAE purchase of Chinese drones given the geopolitical competition that exists between Saudi Arabia and Turkey”.

“For Saudi Arabia to purchase drones from Turkey is making a clear statement towards Iran as well, signalling a level of cooperation between the two major competitors of Iran within the Middle East,” he said.

Also, “developing a defence industrial relationship with Turkey moves beyond diversification and touches on issues of regional military balance”.

Bohl pointed out that the kingdom is also “sensitive” to developing new ties with Chinese defence companies out of concerns it would further upset the United States.

“That all being said, this cooperation does appear to be limited for now, focusing on drones Saudi Arabia already has used, and so it fits into a wider Saudi strategy of developing its defence industry and expanding its capabilities,” he said.

The UAE’s procured Chinese drones for similar reasons and because China, unlike the United States, does not apply end use restrictions for the weapons systems it exports.

“Saudi Arabia may be trying to explore a similar option but at the same time with so much focus on Riyadh from the United States the ability to build up a Turkish drone backup and deploy it with little regard for human rights or regional stability isn’t particularly an option,” Bohl said.

“Though it's a tool from a non-U.S. source, the U.S. will remain concerned about Riyadh’s military behaviour.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.