Saudi Arabia’s New Ballistic Missile Program Will Heighten Tensions with Iran

Capital city Ar-Riyadh
Capital city Ar-Riyadh

According to U.S. intelligence reports, Saudi Arabia is developing a domestic ballistic missile program with the direct support from China, despite Washington’s efforts to cease missile proliferation in the Middle East. The Trump administration did not initially disclose its knowledge of this classified development to key members of Congress. Satellite images taken last November revealed that the factory is situated at an existing missile base near the town of al-Dawadmi, 230 kilometers west of Riyadh. A military base deep inside Saudi Arabia appears to be testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles.

However, it is still unclear where Saudi Arabia gained the technical know-how to build such a facility. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its ballistic missile program using Chinese technology. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia rejects all accusations of running a secret ballistic missile base on its soil. It is an undeniable argument that if a country heavily invests in manufacturing ballistic missiles, it usually correlates with an immense interest in nuclear weapons. Thus, it becomes clear that the main priority of the Saudis in developing ballistic missiles is the development of a nuclear weapons program. A nuclear armed Saudi Arabia means nuclear proliferation in one of the most unstable regions of the world.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions were revealed in the aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s interview in 2018 when he stated that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” Although Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the country from nuclear weapons development, neither President Trump nor any member of his administration has publicly condemned the kingdom’s efforts to possibly acquire a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia has been expressing its willingness to generate nuclear power since 2015, however, the country still has no nuclear power plants. Saudi Arabia has stated plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors in the next 20 years. The first agreement in this regard was signed between Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2015. As a result, Russia’s Rosatom announced that it is ready to build 16 nuclear power units in Saudi Arabia in a $100 billion deal.

Saudi Arabia eventually wants to develop its missile systems and acquire nuclear weapon as a hedge against Iran, as it considers the latter a real threat to its national security. Therefore, the kingdom has shown little concern for what the rest of the world thinks regarding its ambitions. In fact, Saudi-Chinese cooperation on missile systems is not a new phenomenon and it dates back to the 1980s when Saudi Air Force commander Prince Khalid bin Sultan traveled to China to buy medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Indeed, there was a reason for this dialogue, as the decree from 1987, prohibits the U.S. from exporting missile systems to Saudi Arabia.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been more open about its missile program. For instance, in 2010, Saudi Arabia opened a central office of missile defense in Riyadh. By doing so it wants to demonstrate its deterrent capabilities and send a signal to Iran of the consequences if the latter doesn’t limit its own missile program. On the other hand, developing a local ballistic missile system is also a preventive measure taken by Saudi Arabia due to the frequent rocket attacks carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The most recent rocket attack carried out by Houthi rebels hit Abha airport in the southern part of Saudi Arabia.

Another reason behind the ballistic missile program is indeed deteriorated relations with Western allies in the aftermath of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The widespread criticism of Saudi authorities in Western countries and their reluctance to deepen military cooperation with the kingdom, has pushed Riyadh to seek new “strategic allies” like China, Russia, and Pakistan.

Despite efforts by the U.S. Congress to stop arms export to Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump declared a emergency to bypass Congress and sent billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The current geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East reflects deteriorating relations among Western countries and Iran following the termination of the nuclear deal, the endless military campaign in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to halt Iranian influence in the region. A Saudi nuclear program will serve to inflame tensions in the Gulf even more.