It was recently reported that Saudi Arabia could be working towards developing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile programme. The fact that the news came as a surprise was, arguably, the biggest surprise of all. Saudi Arabia had made it clear, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and ex-Foreign Minister Adel al–Jubeir, that it would acquire nuclear weapons if its regional rival, Iran, did. The issue now is not whether Riyadh wishes to acquire ballistic missiles – nuclear capable or not – but whether it has the technological expertise to manufacture them, or the ability to acquire them. The main question arising from this is how would Riyadh’s acquisition of ballistic missiles affect the regional security balance?
The Crown Prince has been known to speak his mind when he feels that it is warranted. In a TV interview in March 2018, he stated unequivocally 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.’ That statement followed his justification for calling Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, the new Hitler of the Middle East and deriding Iran and its army. It would be no exaggeration to state that the Crown Prince does not hold Iran in high regard.
That sentiment would also imply a healthy distrust of Iran’s motives in the region. Tehran’s actions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have left Riyadh feeling that it is being surrounded by a regime that seeks to replace it as the de facto regional leader. The two countries have sought to enhance their influence in the region for years. That competition, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and, later, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, saw Riyadh decide to acquire missiles to protect itself. Satellite images, published by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly in July 2013, showed missile sites being prepared to accommodate Chinese Dongfeng DF-3A intermediate-range ballistic missiles that Riyadh had purchased during the Iran-Iraq War. Saudi Arabia publicly announced its possession of the missiles during a military parade in 2014. A news investigation, also published in 2014, alleged that the CIA had worked to enable Riyadh to purchase Chinese DF-21 missiles in 2007.
While Saudi Arabia was known to have possessed missiles prior to the Crown Prince’s remarks, the satellite images appeared to show that Saudi Arabia now sought to manufacture its own missiles, albeit with foreign assistance. After Iranian-backed Houthi rebels ousted the elected government in Yemen, they began to fire missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Riyadh sought to purchase counter-measures, including missiles of their own. Afraid of upsetting the regional balance, however, Washington refused to sell missiles to Riyadh, which then, unsurprisingly, turned to Beijing for its purchases.
The Washington Post, which broke the initial story of the missile manufacturing facility, noted that: ‘The ballistic missile manufacturing complex – which satellite images suggest broke ground in 2013 when King Salman was defence minister – highlights the nation’s intention to make its own advanced missiles after years of seeking to purchase them abroad.’ It remains unclear where Riyadh obtained the expertise required to build the facility, but China, once again, remains a top contender. As the report noted, while most countries conduct rocket engine tests in the open, China opts to partially cover the exhaust flame and cools the test building with water. The Saudi facility follows a similar philosophy, with a water trench situated next to the engine test stand and a waste-water run-off site nearby. Saudi Arabia appears to be taking steps to wean itself off its dependency on its North American ally, so as not to be constrained in making sovereign decisions.
Ballistic missiles are, however, only one part of the issue. Another news report alleged that before he was implicated in the murder of a journalist, the Crown Prince was being investigated by American intelligence agencies, who suspected he was preparing to build a nuclear weapon in the kingdom. According to that report, Prince Mohammed had initiated discussions with the US Department of Energy, seeking to persuade Washington to sell Saudi Arabia designs for nuclear power plants. The deal would be worth around US$80 billion ($110 billion), depending on how many such plants Saudi Arabia built. He was adamant, however, that Saudi Arabia would produce its own nuclear fuel, since the kingdom has vast uranium reserves and five nuclear research centres. Washington was concerned on two immediate counts, however. Uranium enriched to four per cent purity can be used in power plants, but when enriched to around 90 per cent it could be used in nuclear weapons. Secondly, the Crown Prince’s assertion that the kingdom could potentially pursue the development of nuclear weapons, gave Washington pause for thought.
There is another aspect of this matter that needs to be considered. It was reported in 2013 that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan for Saudi Arabia were ready to be delivered. The Pakistan Army had allegedly entered into an agreement with Riyadh to provide it with a nuclear weapon if Iran developed its own. Riyadh’s existing links with Beijing lend a degree of credence to the allegation. Being unable to supply Riyadh with a nuclear weapon directly, it is certainly plausible that Beijing would use Islamabad as an intermediary to do so. It would not be the first time that China has used the Pakistan route to supply weapons to end-users. After all, it already supplies some weapons systems to the Gulf States and, according to one news source, provided the weapons that enabled Sri Lanka to rout the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.
Weapons aside, Pakistan also provides Riyadh with the military expertise it requires. In the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia lacked a foreign intelligence service, the Pakistani Army’s ISI provided Riyadh with that facility. Today, both retired and serving Pakistani officers work in, or are seconded to, the Gulf Arab states. In May 2018, the former Chief of Pakistan’s Army, General Raheel Sharif, was made the leader of a military alliance of around forty Muslim countries, all Sunni, which aimed to counter Iran’s activities.
This development is bound to have regional and wider implications. It could start a regional arms race. Iran could now demand that Saudi nuclear ambitions be curtailed by the international community, specifically the United States, in an attempt to drive a wedge between those two countries. If Washington did not check Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions, it could give Tehran the moral high ground and the excuse to develop nuclear weapons overtly. That development could see Israel threaten to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Washington did attempt to curtail Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions, moreover, it would risk driving the latter closer to Beijing, thus further reducing Washington’s standing in the region and enhancing Beijing’s. Turkey, which sees itself as a regional leader, could also seek to pursue its own goals and threaten to initiate its own weapons programmes.
If the Saudi experiment with ballistic missiles proceeds, it could, in short, have a drastic effect on the region’s security balance.
Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme, Future Directions
This article was published in Future Directions 0n 6 February 2019