As Houthi rebels step up their long-range assault on both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the latter is quietly progressing on its own ballistic missile program, according to analysts.
The Saudi program, which is something of an open secret in the defense community, appears to be a direct response to the Iran-backed Houthi strikes of recent years, including more than 200 ballistic missiles that have been fired at the Kingdom since 2015. The goal, experts say, is to develop a reliable ballistic missile arsenal which could hold Iran at threat — creating a deterrent factor that, Saudi officials hope, will cause the Houthi strikes to end.
“The current Saudi defense strategy aims at achieving strategic deterrence on so many levels, which requires launching several defense programs, including a program to develop and build advanced ballistic missiles with various ranges to protect its territories,” said Abdallah Ghanem Al Kahtani, a retired Major General from the Royal Saudi Armed Forces and regional defense analyst.
“Iranian ballistic missiles can reach all parts of Saudi Arabia and beyond,” said Al Kahtani. “That is why Saudi Arabia must have its own ballistic missiles that can hit any part in Iran. This is the best way to achieve equal and effective deterrence.”
CNN reported last December on satellite imagery of a facility in Saudi Arabia which, according to US intelligence agencies, was built with technical help from China. That factory, CNN reported, is “actively manufacturing” solid-fuel ballistic missiles.
Saudi Arabia already possesses an undisclosed number of two Chinese-built ballistic missiles, the DF-3 and the DF-21. The first model was a liquid-fuel missile acquired in 1987, with a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers, while the DF-21 is a solid-fuel missile that is more modern, with better accuracy but a maximum range of 1,700 kilometers. Both missiles fall under the command of the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force.
“Saudi Arabia is obliged, and duty-bound to build a strong ballistic missiles arsenal to create a balance of power with Iran and eventually have a reliable deterrent against Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal,” said Khaled Dakheel, a prominent Saudi sociologist, political commentator and columnist.
Like many critics of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, Dakheel believes that former US President Barack Obama’s decision not to go after Iran’s ballistic missile programs “allowed Tehran to push ahead with its missiles’ program and build large numbers and proliferate them throughout the Middle East region.”
“As a consequence of this policy, Iranian ballistic missiles technology is now in the hands of many groups threatening regional security as well as US bases,” Dakheel told Breaking Defense.
Iran has managed in the past three decades to build a formidable ballistic missile force that comprises many models with ranges up to 2,000 kilometers. It has even carried out several tests to put a satellite in space using its own multi-stage missiles. The results of those investments were perhaps most publicly seen when Iran fired several Al Fatih-110 ballistic missiles at US troops in Ain Al-Assad Air Base in Iraq in 2020, in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Reportedly, the US is now including Iranian ballistic missiles in the number of issues raised at the indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, aimed at reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, which President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. However, Iranian officials have refused to include their ballistic missiles program in the nuclear talks and insisted that the missiles were vital for its national defense capabilities.
The United States, along with Saudi Arabia and many other regional and Western actors, have long accused Iran of providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles and with the needed know-how and parts to assemble them in the country.
Iran has used its proxies to project power and attack its adversaries without getting itself directly involved in a costly war that could devastate its ailing economy. And to this date, despite the known fact that Iran is supplying the Houthi forces with the weapons used against the Kingdom, the Saudi military has only responded to strikes from Yemen within Yemen.
“But if ballistic missile attacks originate from inside Iran, the Saudi response will be in kind, and that is why Saudi Arabia is developing its ballistic missiles capability for defensive and deterrence purposes only,” Al Kahtani said.
There was no official Saudi comment on the media report about its new ballistic missiles facility, part of the ambiguity policy the Kingdom has maintained for years with regards to its ballistic missiles capability.
Al Kahtani pointed out that the current Saudi leadership is seeking self-sufficiency in its defense capabilities and that is why it has embarked on a large-scale plan to develop its defense industries through partnerships and joint ventures with international defense companies.
Acquiring Chinese defense technology is not something new for Saudi Arabia, and it is an option it sought before in 2017 when the US refused to sell its unmanned attack aerial vehicles (UCAV). China not only sold Saudi Arabia the Wing Loong II UCAV, but it also signed a contract to build a factory in the Kingdom to build the CH-4 UCAV.
“Saudi Arabia appears to be following the neorealist thought of seeking a true balance of power with other regional players to protect its interests and deter others from undermining its security and sovereignty,” Dakheel said. “The international community should take notice of this and remember Prince Turki Al Faisal’s warning that if Iran manages to acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will do as well.”
Prince Turki, former Saudi Ambassador to the US and ex-intelligence chief, first made this threat in 2011, and repeated it in later statements, emphasizing it reflected his personal view as he is no longer part of the government.
Although the US appears to have turned a blind eye to the Saudi purchase of Chinese ballistic missiles in the past, it is worth watching how the Biden administration handles the Saudi collaboration with China now, and whether it will impact future US defense programs in the Kingdom.