Saudis begin making ballistic missiles with Chinese help

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. (VIA REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. (VIA REUTERS)

Summary

  • The effort is raising new worries about a Middle East arms race

Saudi Arabia has imported sensitive missile technology from the Chinese military and is manufacturing its own ballistic missiles, according to Saudi advisers and officials familiar with U.S. intelligence, raising new worries of a Middle East arms race.

The Saudi effort is the latest in a series of moves by U.S. allies in the Middle East to increase military cooperation with China in a trend that has angered the Biden administration during a period of heightened animosity between Washington and Beijing.

The Saudi government has sought help from the missile branch of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, said the Saudi advisers and an official familiar with U.S. intelligence. These conversations have moved into the stage of actually acquiring hardware from the Chinese military, the advisers and the official said.

Ballistic missiles are powered by rockets that propel them in an arch-shaped trajectory upward before descending toward their target on the surface of the earth. They can be used to deploy both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has long refused to sell ballistic missiles to Riyadh over proliferation concerns. The kingdom obtained Dong Feng-3 missiles in the 1980s from China and displayed them publicly in 2014.

The Chinese military has also transferred multiple batches of finished Dong Feng-series missiles since around 2018 up to as recently as the spring of this year, said the advisers and the official. U.S. intelligence agencies have raised concerns about the transfers but the Biden administration has been reluctant to impose consequences on Saudi Arabia, a strategic partner in the region.

One of the officials familiar with U.S. intelligence said the U.S. is preparing to impose sanctions on Chinese actors over the missile transfers, but not on Saudi officials or institutions.

A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment. Chinese officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Saudi Arabia’s broader regional power struggle with Iran is likely its main motivation for developing ballistic missile technology. The Saudi government likely wants to counter Iran’s considerable ballistic missile arsenal, analysts say.

Riyadh’s development of its own ballistic missile program could also complicate negotiations for a return to the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, analysts say. Iran has demanded that other ballistic missile programs in the region, specifically Israel’s, also be subject to discussion in the negotiations.

“Iran’s activities are clearly creating a knock-on effect in the region and a regional arms race," said Yoel Guzansky, a former member of Israel’s National Security Council and current senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

The advancements in the Saudis’ program come as Middle East countries fear that the U.S. is no longer willing to play a decisive role in the region, a feeling that was punctuated in Saudi Arabia in 2019 when the Trump administration didn’t respond militarily when Saudi oil fields were hit in an attack blamed on Iran.

“There’s a perception in Riyadh of a waning U.S. commitment to their security," said Becca Wasser, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. “There’s this idea that the only way that Saudi can protect itself is to rely on itself."

Saudi Arabia is also engaged in a long-running war in Yemen, where Houthi rebels repeatedly attack Saudi Arabia using drones and ballistic missiles. More than 10,000 people have died since Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive on Yemen in 2015.

Riyadh’s accelerated work on its ballistic missile program is the latest move by U.S. allies in the Middle East to explore closer military relations with China. The development was earlier reported by CNN on Thursday.

This spring, U.S. intelligence agencies learned that China was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility at a port in the United Arab Emirates, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.

The Biden administration warned the Emirati government that a Chinese military presence in its country could threaten ties between the two nations. Construction on the facility was halted after rounds of meetings and visits by U.S. officials.

China also has helped Saudi Arabia construct a facility to fabricate uranium yellowcake, an early step along the path to a civil nuclear energy program or a nuclear arms capability, the Journal reported last year.

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