Every year, the research centers publish lists of the world's biggest arms buyers. In this enormous international market, the names of the Arab states of Persian Gulf always come on top. Saudi Arabia, for example, with world's largest oil reserves and one of the main producers and exporters of this strategic commodity has a major weight as a weapons buyer among other Persian Gulf monarchies.
AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): Every year, the research centers publish lists of the world's biggest arms buyers. In this enormous international market, the names of the Arab states of Persian Gulf always come on top. Saudi Arabia, for example, with world's largest oil reserves and one of the main producers and exporters of this strategic commodity has a major weight as a weapons buyer among other Persian Gulf monarchies.
Over the past decades, Riyadh has relied on its arms procurement strategy to buy security, seeking to maintain a balance of power and gain military superiority over its regional rivals.
However, during the changes in the Saudi governing body and the emergence of a new generation of political elites in the ruling family with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at its center, Riyadh has set a plan for the development of military and security plans for the future, reducing military and security dependence on foreign actors and moving towards defense self-sufficiency.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced plans to invest more than $20 billion in its domestic military industry over the next decade as part of its plans to boost military spending, seeking to further develop and supply home-made weapons. The kingdom wants to spend 50 percent of its military budget internally by 2030. The Military Industries Corporation of this country was established in 2017 for this purpose.
Under the de facto leader Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia in recent years has started various military cooperation deals with other countries in the world to produce part of the country's arms needs.
Meanwhile, CNN on Thursday, citing satellite images, claimed that Saudi Arabia and China are cooperating in the construction of ballistic missiles.
Quoting various sources, CNN reported that some American lawmakers in recent months have been briefed about transfer of ballistic missile technology from China to Saudi Arabia.
The satellite imagery, originally published by the Washington Post on January 23, 2019, showed a ballistic missiles factory in Al-Dawademi, west of the capital Riyadh. Analysts at the time also believed that the plant appeared to be compatible with Chinese technology, as the imagery appeared to confirm.
China's strategy for presence in the region's arms market
The foundation of China-Saudi Arabia cooperation is energy, and this is for a good reason: Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter, and China is the world's largest oil importer. It is, therefore, not surprising that the two countries are interested in deepening cooperation under Beijing's "Belt and Road Initiative" unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and the "Saudi Vision 2030" program presented by Prince Mohammed in 2016.
China is also seeking to improve its position in the West Asian region and the Persian Gulf as a highly strategic region. Thus, while its main focus at the moment is on concluding contracts in infrastructure and transportation projects as part of its initiative, Beijing also seems to have turned its attention to the region's lucrative defense markets. Shifting regional geopolitics, as well as unclear US policies that have raised the security concerns of its regional allies in the Persian Gulf, seem to have prompted China to change its past strategies of relying solely on economic cooperation.
This point is where Beijing sees an appropriate opportunity for security-military relations with the West Asian states, especially the wealthy Arab monarchies. Here arms trade presents itself as a significant aspect.
The strategic "China's Arab Policy" document of January 2016, published just one week before President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, specifically emphasized the need for expansion of China-Arab military partnership and deepening the cooperation in arms, equipment, technology, and joint military drills. China will continue its support for advancement of national defense and military forces of Arab countries for the good regional peace and security, the document says.
It is quite clear that China is very interested in including military-security cooperation, especially arms deals and co-production of weapons, as one of the dimensions of its overall strategy in West Asia. Adding to its advantage is China's technological advancement in defense research and development especially in missiles and drones.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is trying to avoid bets in a multipolar world, especially amid signs that the region is losing its importance in the US military and political strategy. This response gains traction as the US grows less inclined to play the role of Saudi Arabia's security guarantor.
China-Saudi drone and missile cooperation record
The special news attention of the Western media given to China-Saudi Arabia military cooperation in the missile sector never means that military cooperation between the two countries is new. The beginning of Beijing-Riyadh arms cooperation dates back to decades ago.
Saudi Arabia's strategic missile force dates back to the 1980s, when Prince Khalid bin Sultan, then commander of the Air Defense Forces, traveled to China to purchase DF-3 missiles. Dongfeng-3 or "East Wind-3" is a medium-range (3,000 to 4,000 kilometers range) single-stage liquid fuel and low accuracy (between 1000 and 4000 meters margin of error) ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Saudi Arabia is likely to also have purchased more advanced DF-21 missiles from China, which are available in both conventional and nuclear types.
DF-21 is a two-stage solid-fuel ballistic missile that has a range of more than 1,700 kilometers and has a much higher accuracy than DF-3. DF-21 missiles are also capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but apparently these types of missiles were also delivered to the Saudis after modification and ensuring that they could only carry conventional warheads. The Americans did not know about the sale of DF-3 missiles to Saudi Arabia at first, and reportedly became very worried and angry when they found out.
But with the advent of new missile technology, many expected the Saudis to eventually replace old missiles with new purchases from China or even Pakistan. In 1999, then-Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Sultan visited Kahuta Research Laboratories in Pakistan, where Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan's nuclear industry, was enriching uranium, and building versions of North Korea's Nodong missiles, named Ghauri in Pakistan.
The kingdom is very secretive about its ballistic missiles purchases, and even kept bin Sultan's visit to China in the 1980s a secret.
Finally, the prince shared details of his trip in his 1996 memoir "The Desert Warrior." He talked about the secret decision to buy the first generation of ballistic missiles. In this book, he recounts a memory that shows Saudi Arabia's initial concern about the disclosure of secret information about its ballistic missile arsenal. He describes how a young soldier stationed at a ballistic missile depot revealed its location to his father, and as a result they had to transfer the father to the base to preserve the military secrets. Apart from Khalid's memoirs, the Saudis have so far made no clear revelations about the strategic missile force.
Moreover, since about 2007, the Saudi press has been covering the graduation ceremony of the Strategic Missile Forces school in Wadi Al Dawasir.
Two important developments in recent years have added to Saudi Arabia's thirst for missiles and drones: The war Riyadh waged on Yemen and the missile and drone capabilities of regional rivals such as Iran. These two factors laid bare Saudi Arabia's defense weakness.
The purchase of DF-3 missiles took place at the end of Iraq's war on Iran in late 1980s, at a time when the "oil tankers war" was underway. Threats also were directed to ships of Iraq's backers in war, including Saudi Arabia.
The war on Yemen, on the other hand, was a horrific area where Saudi Arabia tried to demonstrate its defense capability. In November, reports came to suggest that Saudi Arabia was worried about its missile defense arsenals running out of ammunition and asked the US and NATO for help.
Amid Riyadh's growing desire to strengthen its missile and drone capabilities, cooperation with China took on newer and broader dimensions. In March 2017, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation signed a cooperation agreement to produce the CH-4 drone, similar in many ways to the American MQ-1 Predator.
Saudi Arabia has owned such drones since 2014, like Iraq. The drone facility in Saudi Arabia would likely serve as a construction, service, and support center for other CH-4 operators, including Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, across the region.
Why China not the US?
The US has always been the largest arms exporter and the main supplier of Saudi military needs, and military cooperation has been an important part of the Washington-Riyadh strategic relationship throughout the history of the two countries' alliance.
For Washington, however, arms sales are primarily for the purpose of exerting influence and rewards to ensure loyalty, which can be cut off or suspended depending on the political dynamics and preferences of US policy. For example, Saudi Arabia turned to China for ballistic missiles in 1988 because the Americans rejected a Saudi bid for a missile deal due to Israeli opposition.
Additionally, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an unofficial understanding of 35 countries, bans Saudi purchases of ballistic missiles from the US and other countries. China is not a signatory to it.
In the new conditions, Donald Trump's assumption of power allowed the Saudis to pursue their secret missile and nuclear programs amid the White House's deliberate disregard. But with Trump's departure, under the new administration headed by President Joe Biden, which has taken the gesture of pressuring US allies, especially among Arabs, over human rights issues and arms control to persuade domestic public opinion, Riyadh finds it harder to advance its missile program on the strength of the US backing.
But China, unlike the US, places its arms sales strategy on a "trade first" principle. Beijing leaders find the Arab world and West Asia generally a new arms market for their low-cast, hi-tech weapon systems, and so they are inclined to sell any country in the region arms regardless of its policies.
But despite bin Salman's aspirations, the Saudi technological weakness gives reason to observers to seriously cast doubt on possibility of rise of a domestic ballistic missiles, air defense systems, drones, as well as other advanced weaponry like fighter jets, industry in the Arab kingdom. This means that Saudi Arabia remains an arms consumer for the foreseeable future.