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Saudi Arabia agrees to produce Turkey’s Baykar drones

Riyadh wants to develop its defense capabilities, especially with the prospect of its main rival Iran growing its nuclear arsenal.
Baykar Press Office/dia images via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has signed an agreement with Turkish defense firm Baykar to localize the manufacturing of its popular drones in the kingdom, state-owned Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI) said on Twitter Sunday.

SAMI is a defense company launched in May 2017 by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The new drone pact will support Saudi Arabia’s defenses and bolster the kingdom’s military manufacturing capabilities, in line with the Vision 2030 initiative, SAMI said. Bakyar drones are growing in popularity and have been deployed in conflicts from Ukraine to Libya. The company’s UAVs are often preferred for their affordability, Baykar’s substantial tech support and the weapons’ offensive capabilities.

In July, during Turkish President Recep Tayyip’s Erdogan’s visit to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy Baykar drones. Although the number and cost of the drones were not revealed, the deal has been reported as the biggest defense contract in Turkey’s history. It was the Turkish leader’s first visit to the region since being reelected by a narrow margin in May, and his main mission was to drive inward investment into Turkey, which has been beset with financial difficulties, including a currency crisis and sky-high inflation.

It is no secret that Riyadh wants to bolster its defense capabilities, especially with the prospect of its main rival Iran growing its nuclear arsenal. A leaked US intelligence document from last December revealed that Saudi Arabia wants to expand its “transactional relationship” with China by buying drones, missiles and other military and security apparatus. In 2022, the Saudi Defense Ministry agreed to a $115 million deal that saw China-based Norinco and Riyadh’s ACES Co. partnered with a Chinese state-run firm to develop Saudi UAVs.

Asked about the significance of the drone manufacturing deal for both sides, Col. Rich Outzen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey, told Al-Monitor: "For the Turks it means broader reach of their defense industrial flagship product (UCAVs), hard currency, and another geopolitical tie to an important investor and regional power.

"For Saudi Arabia it means a hedge against Western fickleness on arms sales, a potential advance in national defense tech base, and better drones than Iran can deploy. If you conceive of regional security in terms of cooperative arrangements with little extra-regional play that deter potential spoilers (Iran), this is a deal with many advantages," he added.

For years, ties have been strained between Ankara and Riyadh over Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement and fallout over the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In 2021, Ankara began a campaign to repair diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates.

More recently, there have been other significant business deals announced between the two countries. For example, state-owned Saudi oil company Aramco met with Turkish contractors in June to discuss around $50 billion worth of potential projects in the kingdom. 

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