CAIRO, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Speculation persists regarding an emerging Egyptian-Russian military accord that may include the sale by Moscow of a package of weapons systems worth at least $2 billion.
It would likely hinge on Saudi Arabia, a supporter of Egypt's military-backed regime, underwriting a deal that would be a major boost for Russian efforts to regain influence in a changing Middle East as U.S. power in the region is eroding.
The Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council have pledged $12 billion to Cairo and have delivered about $7 billion.
There are reports Riyadh has agreed to pay for the Russian arms. But the switch from U.S. weapons -- supplied to Egypt since 1979 -- back to Russia, the primary supplier to throughout the 1970s will entail a significant expenditure that could signal a possible shift in Arab military procurement policies.
Prospects for a major arms deal grew following a Nov. 13-14 visit to Cairo by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. They were accompanied by Mikhail Zavaly, a senior official of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, and Andrei Boitsov, first deputy director of the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation.
Russian officials said a major arms deal, possibly worth as much as $4 billion and focused on air-defense systems denied by the U.S., was under discussion. They said no contract has yet been signed, but both sides appeared eager to re-establish a relationship that existed in the 1970s during the Cold War.
The Israeli website Debkafile, which is considered close to Israeli intelligence, reports "several thousand Russian military advisers" would be deployed in Egypt if the arms deal is signed.
Ruslan Aliev of Moscow's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, noted that any deals Egypt may make with Moscow can be conducted "only in the context of the GCC giving aid to Egypt and permitting them to spend on Russian equipment."
Some Western analysts see Cairo's enthusiasm for rebuilding ties with Moscow -- broken off in 1972 when the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat booted out about 20,000 Soviet military advisers and realigned with the United States by making peace with Israel -- as a backlash against Washington for suspending some U.S. defense aid to Egypt in October.
That included blocking delivery of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, General Dynamics Land Systems M1A1 Abrams tanks, Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and Boeing Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The move by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was intended as a protest against the Egyptian military's July 3 overthrow of the country's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the ensuing army crackdown on his followers in which hundreds of protesters were gunned down in the streets.
Curiously, the Americans allowed a Nov. 19 delivery to Egypt of four new Ambassador-class fast missile craft built by VT Halter Marine at its Pascagoula yard in Mississippi.
Two more of the stealthy, Harpoon-armed craft are being built under a U.S.-Navy program that's part of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.
The 700-ton ships are designed to defend the Suez Canal, a vital artery linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean on which the U.S. Navy depends for rapid deployments in the Persian Gulf. This could explain why that delivery went ahead.
The visit to Cairo by Lavrov and Shoigu -- the highest-level Russian delegation to Egypt since the 1970s -- underlined the importance that Moscow has placed on the Arab world at a time when U.S. authority in the region is waning.
The Russians are sweeping back into favor in the region, even in Saudi Arabia, where Moscow's support for the embattled regime in Syria -- shunned by most of the 22 members of the Arab League -- is being quietly overlooked.
The extent to which this will change defense procurement in the region -- where Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states have for decades relied heavily on U.S. weapons systems -- is not clear.
But as U.S. and European defense industries must increasingly rely on exports because of sweeping cutbacks in domestic military spending, the prospect of being edged out by Russia is worrying Western arms manufacturers.