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US Set To Lift Restrictions on Satellite Technology Exports to Saudi Arabia, GCC

The Empty Quarter in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Photograph courtesy of the European Space Agency.

The United States is set to lift restrictions on the export of sensitive strategic technologies – to include high-resolution reconnaissance satellites – to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, according to a report in the French online publication Intelligence Online.

The recent visit with President Donald J. Trump and his national security staff in Washington, DC, by the Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, along with other senior Saudi national security officials, has apparently repaired Saudi-US relations after several years of tensions during the previous administration of President Barack Obama.

It is believed that the Washington, DC, discussions between the U.S. and the Saudis saw agreements on U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and also on common approaches towards containing Iran. Of particular significance, however, is the agreement by the U.S. to lift export restrictions on strategic technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance satellites to Saudi Arabia, and potentially to other GCC countries.

It is believed that Saudi Arabia is in the market for two to eight high-resolution reconnaissance satellites over the coming years, and it is known that French companies Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space have partnered together to offer electro-optical reconnaissance satellites similar to the Falcon Eye satellites being built for the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. satellite manufacturer Orbital ATK has partnered with Rakaa Holding to create a joint venture called Alliant Techsystems Operations Saudi Arabia as a commercial entity through which to make the Orbital ATK bid to build reconnaissance satellites for the Saudi defence ministry.

The lifting of restrictions on the sale and export of sensitive strategic technology will provide a boost to Orbital ATK’s Saudi reconnaissance satellite bid, and also to other U.S. companies seeking to sell high-end satellite systems, sensors, and other technologies to the GCC.

This boost will likely help U.S. companies compete more favourably in the GCC against European companies such as Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space.

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