American defense experts say Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a missile program with the help of China and Pakistan, in a potential divergence from the US and policy shift towards the East that may raise concerns in Washington.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia has started building its first known ballistic missile production factory.
Satellite images taken last November by US company Planet Labs Inc and analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey revealed that the factory is situated at an existing missile base near the central Saudi town of al-Watah.
US defense experts told CNBC that the development indicates a growing desire by Riyadh, Washington's longtime ally, to take offensive measures without the approval of its main weapons sponsor.
“There’s an arms race underway,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Arab affairs expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “Whiplash policy changes in Washington have had their impact on Riyadh: Saudi authorities are no longer going to be constrained by White House whispers. The Saudis are demonstrating that they can take matters into their own hands.”
Missile expert Jeffrey Lewis also stressed that heavy investment in missiles often correlates with an interest in nuclear weapons, adding, “I would be a little worried that we’re underestimating the Saudis’ ambitions here."
Moreover, Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and expert on Persian Gulf affairs, said that the timing of the Saudi missile factory construction "underscores a willingness to ignore Washington’s interests and policies" from the beginning of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power.
Riyadh started its missile program, which is overseen by the kingdom’s secretive Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), with the purchase of Chinese D3-F Silkworm ballistic missiles back in 1988.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former Pentagon official said the SRF likely “operates with Chinese input,” noting that “given that Pakistan has close ties with both China and with the Kingdom and has numerous advisers working with Saudi security agencies, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some Pakistani assistance as well.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, however, rejected Beijing's assistance to Riyadh to build a missile base.
Meanwhile, analysts believe that revelations about Saudi Arabia's missile program could further complicate the kingdom's relations with the US, given the already increased anger over Riyadh’s deadly war on Yemen and the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
In addition to the missiles activities, the Saudis are also pursuing a nuclear energy program.
Bin Salman laid the foundation stone for the kingdom’s first nuclear research reactor during his visit to King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh last November.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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