Saudi Arabia appears to be building its own ballistic missiles with help from China

Saudi Arabia is building its own ballistic missiles with help from China, according to US intelligence assessments and satellite images.

The assessment of the American intelligence agencies is that the kingdom, which would have long acquired missiles in Beijing, is now manufacturing its own, according to a source familiar with the matter and an American official.

Satellite images obtained by NBC News also suggest that Saudi Arabia is producing ballistic missiles at a site west of the capital, Riyadh, according to researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

“The main piece of evidence is that the facility operates a ‘firebox’ to remove solid propellant remnants from the production of ballistic missiles,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the ‘Middlebury Institute. .

They added that the site “appears to have been built with help from China.”

The news was first reported by CNN Thursday. Images were provided by commercial imaging company Planet Labs PBC.

Planet Labs PBC

This development could alter security calculations in the Middle East and further complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to get Iran back into its nuclear deal with world powers. It could also add another layer of complexity to Washington’s relationship with Beijing.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional enemies, and there are fears that Riyadh’s manufacture of ballistic missiles could alter Tehran’s calculations on its possible deals in talks to revive the 2015 accord. This new development comes days before the struggling talks resumed in Vienna, and could make Iran even more unlikely to give up its own ballistic missiles.

“If Iran were to start negotiations on its missile program, it would be unlikely to accept limits that do not apply to other countries as well,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick, associate researcher at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in an article on Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile program published by the institute in August.

Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official, said at the time that apart from a general desire to keep pace with Iran, Riyadh’s motivations for acquiring ballistic missiles were not entirely clear. made clear. Unlike Tehran, however, Saudi Arabia is not known to have initiated work to develop a nuclear warhead for its missiles, he added.

Ballistic missiles are rocket-propelled weapons that can carry conventional explosives as well as nuclear warheads.

Nonetheless, the fact that Saudi Arabia is now known to manufacture its own ballistic missiles will raise concerns that the arms race will accelerate in a very tense and already conflict-torn region.

Saudi Arabia’s media ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Britain on Friday condemned a ballistic missile launch by Iran in war games this week.

“These actions constitute a threat to regional and international security and we call on Iran to immediately cease its activities,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

In 2018, former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions against Iran. Tehran has since slashed its compliance with the deal, announcing it would enrich uranium to 60% purity, which is significantly closer to the amount needed to make an atomic bomb.

In the past, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made it clear that if Tehran develops a nuclear bomb, Riyadh will too.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bombs, but without a doubt if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible,” he added. he told CBS in 2018.

The crown prince is trying to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-dependent nation into an economic power more accepted in the West.

The Saudis have long been allies of the United States and had close ties with the Trump administration, but these efforts to reshape the country’s image were marred by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s continued close military relationship with China is also likely to be of concern to the Biden administration as it tries to manage a complex and strained relationship with Beijing, criticizing its human rights record. man while cooperating with the Chinese leadership on major global threats. like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.

Asked to respond to new indications that it was helping Saudi Arabia produce ballistic missiles, China said it had always opposed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, and applied controls strict export of missiles and related technologies, according to a statement from its Foreign Ministry.

“China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” the ministry said. “Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not imply the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

He added that Beijing has always opposed unilateral sanctions and “will continue to take the necessary measures to resolutely protect its own rights and interests.”

Saudi Arabia is known to have bought missiles from China in the past, but never built its own, the source familiar with the matter and the US official confirmed.

Ed Flanagan, Lubna Hussein and Reuters contributed.

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