Is Riyadh developing ballistic missiles with China's help?

Is Riyadh developing ballistic missiles with China's help?
7 min read
11 January, 2022
Analysis: Recent reports suggest Riyadh is developing its ballistic missile arsenal with the support of China. What impact could a viable Saudi missile project have on regional geopolitics?

According to recent media reports, Saudi Arabia could be manufacturing ballistic missiles. As per satellite images acquired by NBC News, the missile production site seems to be west of its capital Riyadh.

“The key piece of evidence is that the facility is operating a ‘burn pit’ to dispose of solid-propellant leftover from the production of ballistic missiles,” researchers Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California told US media. 

US intelligence agencies have also announced that Beijing is helping Riyadh in this endeavour.  

Considering that the Kingdom purchased its very first missiles from China, these findings are not surprising. As far back as 1988, Riyadh has bought Chinese DF-3A’s, a model that later earned the reputation of being ‘highly inaccurate’ with limited mobility. Next, Saudi Arabia purchased DF-21 missiles in 2007, which became public knowledge in 2014.  

Worsening regional rivalries and spats may have motivated Riyadh to upgrade its defence capabilities in recent years. Particularly, two drone attacks in 2019 on key oil installations may have been a turning point. Over the past half-decade, Riyadh has grown closer to Beijing and it is likely the Kingdom reached out to its ally for help. 

"Saudi Arabia's concerns evolved into deep-seated doubts during Barack Obama's presidency about whether it could count on the US to act as a reliable security provider in the face of an increasingly formidable Iranian threat"

“Saudi Arabia has had grave misgivings over the inability to contain the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq,” Prof. Michaël Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The New Arab.

“Concerned about its air defence capabilities, Riyadh reportedly bought ballistic missiles from China in 2007. Saudi Arabia's concerns evolved into deep-seated doubts during Barack Obama's presidency about whether it could count on the US to act as a reliable security provider in the face of an increasingly formidable Iranian threat,” he added.

“During the presidency of Joe Biden, who served as former President Barack Obama's vice-president, those doubts have re-emerged. This gap in confidence has been exploited by China, which cannot comfortably tolerate a threat to Saudi Arabia's oil production nor Iran’s proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen as the latter endangers the maritime security domain in the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea corridor, a critical segment of Beijing's 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), the 'Road' in China's Belt and Road Initiative,” Tanchum said.

He, added, “By increasingly aligning Saudi Arabia's interest with China's MSR, Beijing's relationship with Riyadh has evolved from transactional cooperation to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’".

The national flags of Saudi Arabia (R) and China are displayed from a road lamp at Tiananmen square in Beijing on February 21, 2019.
The national flags of Saudi Arabia and China are displayed from a road lamp at Tiananmen square ahead of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's visit to Beijing on 21 February 2019. [Getty]

In January 2016, China declared its support for Yemen’s efforts to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. China subsequently sold combat drones to Saudi Arabia and in November 2019 the two countries held a three-week joint naval exercise. Throughout this period Beijing worked to enhance Riyadh's aerial capabilities, according to the analyst, assisting the kingdom with its own ballistic missile development programme. 

“The Saudi-Chinese security relationship has developed in the areas where there has been a delivery deficit by Washington. Although alarmed by the expanding defence ties between Beijing and Riyadh, it still remains unclear if there is sufficient political will within the Biden administration and in Congress to reset the terms of the United States' defence relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Tanchum added.

Describing the Sino-Saudi equation last year, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “In the face of the volatile international situation, China and Saudi Arabia need to maintain close strategic communication, which is an inherent part of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries."

In this context, a defence collaboration including some transfer of technology cannot be ruled out though no missile tests have been reported yet. What impact can a viable missile project by Riyadh have on the regional geopolitical situation? 

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Firstly, if it materialises, it has the potential to alter the security dynamics of the Middle East. While other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would want to follow suit, rivals like Iran and others might want superior deterrence. The Chinese angle would make it even more interesting, as most of these countries have similar “strategic partnerships” with Beijing.  

While Sino-Saudi strategic ties were on an upward trajectory, Beijing nurtured the same level of relations with Egypt, UAE, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, while also signing a broad spectrum, massive 25-year cooperation plan with Tehran. 

After launching the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, Beijing has focused a lot more on the Middle East and has been the largest foreign investor in the region since 2016. While Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are slated for major port and infrastructure projects, 5G agreements have also been signed. 

The nature of ties evolved to be strategic, according to a report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, as the BRI has the flexibility to include security influence with the goal of “increasing military cooperation and exporting its censorship and surveillance technologies to countries under BRI auspices.” 

"If a viable missile project by Riyadh materialises, it has the potential to alter the security dynamics of the Middle East"

However, while Beijing could facilitate its other Middle Eastern allies in the same manner, it does not give any country special preference.

Secondly, a missile project in Riyadh might influence the ongoing JCPOA negotiations. If Riyadh’s ballistic missile progress drives Iran in the same direction, convincing Tehran to get back to its nuclear deal and agree to restraints on acquiring missile technology may become much more difficult.

“Tehran is not particularly surprised by the recent leak concerning the US assessment on KSA actively manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China," a European diplomat in Islamabad who was previously posted in Tehran told The New Arab on condition of anonymity.

"In fact, similar rumours were diffused to the media a couple of years ago together with reports concerning other forms of Chinese support to the Kingdom.”

Consequently, Iran could react to this development with equanimity. “The last leak has to be considered in the framework of the overall scenario, starting from the nuclear talks currently going on in Vienna, the ongoing war in Yemen and the talks between Tehran and Riyadh in Baghdad," the diplomat said.

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"I don’t think the revelation will bring any change in the Iranian approach to the region and most likely will not irk Iran by sounding alarm bells in the Supreme Leader's decision-making circle. Moreover, Iran will not change its approach to the JCPOA talks, having already made clear on many occasions that its missile programme is a 'non-negotiable issue'," they added.

“Military circles have minimised the issue. IRGC’s linked Fars news agency has defined the Saudi missile programme as a 'premature baby at the heart of world powers’ rivalry'. Having said that, it remains to be seen if the leak will somehow influence the relationship with Beijing, which Tehran wants to preserve and develop in case the US economic pressure will intensify due to a possible JCPOA talks collapse, especially after the recently signed Iran-China cooperation programme.” 

Finally, this development would reduce Riyadh’s dependence on Washington, which has been helping it secure its oil facilities and provided deterrence against Iran. Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told US media that, “While significant attention has been focused on Iran’s large ballistic missile programme, Saudi Arabia’s development and now production of ballistic missiles has not received the same level of scrutiny.” 

"The Saudi-Chinese security relationship has developed in the areas where there has been a delivery deficit by Washington"

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that China opposes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, it goes on to state that, “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners. Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” 

Diplomatic negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran have been facilitated by Baghdad since April 2021. Several rounds of talks have been held but Tehran has not been as forthcoming as it has been with Abu Dhabi.

Quite possibly, Iran would prefer to wait for the outcome of the highly crucial JCPOA talks, which will determine its future foreign policy. 

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi