by Javad Heiran-Nia
According to satellite imagery reported on by The Washington Post, Saudi Arabia is building its first factory to produce ballistic missiles. It is located at a missile base in al-Watah district, southwest of the capital of Riyadh. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argues that this development raises “the possibility that Saudi Arabia is going to build longer-range missiles and seek nuclear weapons.” Lewis adds, “We may be underestimating their desire and their capabilities.”
The findings were further confirmed by Michael Elleman of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and Joseph Bermudez of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. So far, neither the Saudi embassy in the United States nor the U.S. government has reacted to this development.
The history of the Saudi missile program 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. Since the fuel for these missiles was liquid, their ability was limited. At the time, Saudi Arabia was worried about missile threats from Saddam Hussein and also hoping to gain an edge over Iran. The United States did not oppose the purchase, since the CIA concluded that the missiles did not have the ability to carry nuclear warheads. In fact, the purchase of these missiles was carried out under the authority of George Bush’s administration.
Saudi Arabia’s current missile efforts are part of the ambitious security program of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Last year, MbS and former Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir both warned that the kingdom would seek nuclear weapons if Iran did the same. “It is difficult to tell” whether Saudi Arabia was preparing to go nuclear with its alleged new missiles, researchers Fabian Hinz and David Schmerler told Newsweek, because the exact model of the missiles is unknown. Hinz added, “if you want to have nuclear weapons, in general, you also want to have the means to domestically build the delivery systems.”
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. It wants to demonstrate its deterrent capabilities. It also wants to send a signal to Iran in particular of the consequences if Iran doesn’t limit its own missile program.
The rocket attacks on Riyadh by Yemen’s Houthis have also pushed Saudi Arabia to expand its missile program. The Saudis are worried that Iran could build a missile factory in Syria to equip Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen with advanced missiles.
The other major reason behind the Saudi ballistic missile program is Riyadh’s distrust of Washington. The widespread U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi showed that Trump, who wants to maintain his close relationship with MbS, could not control the political environment in Washington. At the same time, Trump warned Saudi Arabia that the king would last two weeks without U.S. support.
Given the growing fragility of U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh has decided to develop its nuclear and missile program even without American support.
Javad Heiran-Nia is the head of the international desk of Mehr News Agency (MNA), a semi-official, state-funded news agency and one of Iran’s biggest agencies.