Seven sanctioned Russian companies, including a manufacturer of military helicopters deployed in the war in Ukraine, are visiting Saudi Arabia next week as part of a trade mission to increase business with the Gulf state.
Companies including weapons manufacturers with direct links to the Russian military, state corporations involved in the invasion of Ukraine, and the agency overseeing a Ukrainian nuclear plant in the country seized by the Russian military last year, are set to attend.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to develop business ties with Russian companies sanctioned by western states for their role in the invasion of Ukraine is likely to cause further tensions in its already strained relationship with Washington.
The Russian deputy industry and trade minister, Alexey Gruzdev, praised the trade event as the first of its kind. “Our business mission to Riyadh is aimed to strengthen the economic ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia, discover new business opportunities, exchange ideas and establish long-term partnership,” he said.
Companies integral to the Russian military industrial sector are listed as attendees at the event in Riyadh on Monday. They include Russian Helicopters, the manufacturer of the Ka-52 Alligator helicopter. At least 35 Ka-52s have been shot down by Ukrainian forces or abandoned by Russia, according to the Dutch open-source outlet Oryx.
Kamaz, an armoured vehicle manufacturer sanctioned for its role in aiding Russia’s war effort, is also listed as attending. Its trucks were spotted in Belarus in March 2022 carrying Iskander missiles that were allegedly launched in the early days of the invasion, and its Typhoon vehicles have also been reported transporting Russian soldiers across Ukrainian territory.
Perhaps the most significant participant in the meetings with the Saudis is Rostec, a Russian state-owned defence systems and technology corporation that has supplied weapons used during the invasion of Ukraine. These included the Solntsepyok heavy flamethrower systems, the Zemledeliye remote mine-laying vehicles and various launch rocket systems.
The US Treasury described Rostec as “the cornerstone of Russia’s defence, industrial, technology, and manufacturing sectors” in a sanctions notice published in June.
Also listed as attending is Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company. According to Ukrainian officials and reports, Rosatom facilitated the Russian military’s seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant last year, and has since taken over managing the facility. Rosatom denies the claims.
A source familiar with the objectives of the Saudi trade event said Russian delegates were seeking to secure joint investment for business projects, assistance sustaining oil and gas prices and other diplomatic support.
The source, who asked not to be named, said the Saudi investment ministry was exploring the possibility of opening an office in Moscow, and that a similar trade forum with Chinese businesses had also been held recently, although those businesses did not involve firms with connections to the Chinese military.
“What is different here, and these recent business events are just one sign of it, is a major reorientation of Saudi policy towards Russia and China, and away from the USA and west Europe,” the source said.
Saudi’s relationship with Moscow has created tensions in Washington. Last year, the kingdom sided with Russia over US interests when it decided to cut oil production shortly before the US midterm elections, prompting Joe Biden to threaten that the kingdom would face “consequences”.
Asked about the planned Saudi-Russian trade meeting, a state department spokesperson said the US would continue to focus on “ensuring that our sanctions and export controls are properly enforced”.
“We encourage countries and business to do their due diligence and refrain from conducting transactions with sanctioned persons, to avoid exposure to sanctions,” the spokesperson said. The US Treasury did not respond to a request for comment.
The White House has backed off on its threats against Riyadh since last year. But anger towards the government of Mohammed bin Salman is still rife among Democrats and various Republicans on Capitol Hill, including some who have said they are concerned that Saudi Arabia could share sensitive US defence technology with its Russian allies.
Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman and longtime Saudi critic, said: “Saudi Arabia’s support for Russia in addition to its history of human rights violations should spark a serious review of the US-Saudi relationship.”
Next week’s trade gathering could also frustrate the UK government, taking place shortly after a British trade mission aimed at securing an investment deal between the UK and the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member.
Seated next to the UK business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, at the Qatar Economic Forum this week, the Saudi investment minister, Khalid Al-Falih, declared Riyadh “the political capital of the Middle East”. Falih’s deputy is listed as a speaker of the Russian trade gathering next week.
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to situate itself geopolitically as a partner to several leading powers – essentially playing all sides – was evident at a conference in California earlier this month, when Falih told business and political figures that Riyadh had no intention of being constrained by pre-existing relationships.
He said: “We don’t feel that our relationship with the US is going to be at the expense of our ability to have relationships with other strong economic and political friends and partners around the world. This goes back to a multi-polar world where emerging middle powers … are going to be seeking their own interests.”
Visibly irritated when asked about tensions between Washington and Riyadh, Falih observed that Saudi trade with China already exceeded that with the US and the EU combined. He said: “Do you expect us to put that at risk, just so that a certain country would feel that we’re on their side?”