The visit to Riyadh by President Putin has revealed several interesting space projects believed to be under discussion between Saudi Arabia and Russia, to include a Russian proposal to train and launch a Saudi astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) and even a proposal to launch satellites from Saudi Arabia using Russian launch capabilities.
The Russian proposal to train and launch a Saudi astronaut to the ISS has been a subject of discussion for some time now, and will likely follow the same terms and conditions as the Russian training and launch of the UAE’s first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansoori, who recently completed his mission to the ISS. Russia is also understood to be in discussions with Bahrain regarding its proposal to train and launch a Bahraini astronaut to the ISS.
According to Russian and Saudi press reporting, Russia is also understood to have proposed to the Saudis a satellite launch project from Saudi territory. Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), told Russian reporters that the Russian proposal could result in an “exciting project to launch a satellite from Saudi Arabia into orbit using interesting Russian technologies.” What those ‘interesting’ Russian technologies might be is as yet unclear, but Dmitriev’s comment could be a reference to Russian air launch capabilities.
The visit by President Putin to Saudi Arabia also highlighted a Russian proposal to place an optical telescope on Saudi territory as part of Russia’s space situational awareness (SSA) network known as the Space Surveillance System (SSS).
Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed in 2017 to cooperate on joint space exploration projects, satellite technology, and increased Saudi use of Russia’s GLONASS global navigation satellite system (GNSS).
With Russian strategic influence in the Middle East at its highest since Soviet times, President Putin is pressing his perceived advantage in the region as the strategic role of the United States is seen to be diminished and in disarray. While it is very unlikely that Russia will displace the U.S. as Saudi Arabia’s technology provider of choice, Riyadh and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) capitals are keen to deepen their ties with Moscow as a hedging strategy against further U.S. withdrawals from the region, as well as to acquire transfers of key technologies.