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Saudi and Russian space cooperation and the Iranian complication

An image of the Arabian Peninsula taken from space. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Regional publication Gulf News Journal featured a story on 23 December 2016 about nascent space cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia, that includes a supposed 2015 agreement between Riyadh and Moscow to build a manned space station.

The Gulf News Journal report states wiith incredulity that the Saudi space programme is still underway despite the fiscal pressures being experienced because of much needed economic reforms and austerity in Saudi Arabia. This incredulous attitude ignores evidence that a well-targeted and focused space programme could play a vital role in diversifying Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and the development of an indigenous high-technology industrial sector.

According to the Gulf News Journal report, Saudi capital is likely an attractive asset for the financially struggling Russian space sector, though few details of the alleged 2015 Saudi-Russian agreement are publicly available.

Interestingly, reports of a Saudi-Russian space cooperation agreement come at a time when Russia is also actively cooperating on space issues with Iran, Riyadh’s arch-rival in the Middle East. Further, Saudi Arabia finds itself at odds with Russia over President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria that has propped up the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. This geopolitical context raises questions about how far Saudi and Russian space cooperation can go before it undermines the strategic interests of both sides.

For Saudi Arabia the solution to this geopolitical conundrum is more straightforward since it has, and will continue to, enter into space cooperation agreements with other countries, such as the United States, China, and more recently, Belarus. For Russia, on the other hand, its longstanding and deepening space cooperation with Iran may limit its appeal throughout the rest of the Middle East, though it is thought that Egypt and Russia may sign a contract for a high-resolution imaging satellite for Cairo.

While fiscal matters are of obvious importance to Riyadh’s space programme, especially in these austere times, at this stage it is likely that geopolitical considerations could have just as a big of an impact on the strategic direction on the Saudi space sector as finances.

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