In recent years, Saudi Arabia has pushed for the purchase and production of missiles. Earlier, Riyadh spent its oil revenues on air force equipment. However, the Yemeni war highlighted the weaknesses of the Saudi army, and Riyadh realized that the advanced air force alone did not determine the fate of the war. The ability to mass-produce ballistic missiles is in line with the broader dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s national strategy. Saudi Arabia’s defense budget allocation in 2022 has reduced spending by 10 percent, while emphasizing the production and localization of several capabilities.
US opposition to the sale of ballistic missiles, the withdrawal of the most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia, and the relocation to East Asia have made Saudi Arabia more determined to pursue this strategy. In 1988, Saudi Arabia purchased its first DF-3 missile from China. They lacked precision and mobility, and Saudi Arabia reportedly never used them. Riyadh first purchased DF-21 missiles from China in 2007, unveiled in 2014.
China’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the production of ballistic missiles demonstrates China’s soft military approach to the Middle East. China has sought to establish a soft military presence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf kingdoms by refusing to escalate tensions with dominant military powers in the Middle East, such as the United States, which has about 50,000 personnel, and Britain and France, with 3,000. A soft military presence means participating in temporary military peace operations, maneuvers, peacekeeping forces, military-technical services, military training institutions, and military investment in allied countries instead of establishing physical military bases. Indeed, further expansion of China’s soft military presence outside the regional environment is necessary to protect growing foreign trade investment and other benefits.
In line with its soft military approach, China has also provided security in the Middle East through multilateral operations. In 2006, for example, China was one of the first countries to assist UN peacekeepers in Lebanon. Similarly, in 2008, China sent its naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden to participate in anti-piracy operations following a UN resolution. Thus, a softer and more profound military presence, such as investing in the joint production of military technology, may work better than stimulating competitors in the host country by establishing military bases.
Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with China in the production of ballistic missiles is not merely a transfer of expertise. According to the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia was the largest importer of weapons worth $ 13130 million in the years 2017-2020. From 2017 to 2020, the country imported the most weapons from 11 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Germany, China, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, and Turkey. China is Saudi Arabia’s sixth-largest arms supplier. The top five countries may also have offered conditions to help Saudi Arabia produce missiles, but Riyadh has chosen China because of the unique conditions of cooperation.
The United States, one of Saudi Arabia’s main backers, has opposed repeated requests for ballistic missiles. The United States is concerned about the arms race in the region because such missiles can carry nuclear weapons. In addition, the United States is committed to Israel’s security and military superiority. In addition, the United States was a member and founder of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1987, which banned the export of any missile that could carry a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km.
European countries, especially Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium, are Saudi Arabia’s second largest arms suppliers, but are not generous in meeting advanced technology needs. Apart from concerns about the development of an arms race in the Middle East, European countries make the export of advanced military and civilian technologies conditional on respect for human rights and interference in their political affairs. Civil society is also very active and influential in Western countries and opposes the military supply to countries with a bad human rights record and involved in a war, such as Saudi Arabia. Legal and private NGOs in Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Finland, and Germany have repeatedly opposed arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemeni war. The level of technology is another factor that does not allow Saudi Arabia to interact militarily with other countries easily. Saudi Arabia has no experience producing or testing ballistic missiles and needs a country that can fully localize these missiles for Riyadh.
Accordingly, China is the best option that Saudi Arabia currently has for the production of ballistic missiles. Riyadh has two experience buying missiles with Beijing. Saudi Arabia sees China as a reliable partner because it has fewer restrictions on technology sharing. Unlike Russia, which sees geopolitical and political goals as a guide to its policy and influence in the Middle East, China is concerned about less sensitive economic development and hides its geopolitical goals behind economic activity.
The China Belt and Road Initiative is seen as a guide to China’s economic goals in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia has a special place in this initiative. Thus, the seaport is a vital part of the Silk Road in the China Belt and Road design. In parallel, the maritime security zone on the Arabian Peninsula (Aden-Red Sea corridor) is a crucial element for Beijing and is sensitive to Saudi security.
In general, it can be said that China is trying to bridge the gap between the United States and its Gulf allies. In mid-January 2022, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), consisting of foreign ministers, visited Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “The Middle East suffers from unrest and long-term conflict due to foreign intervention. We believe that the Middle East people are the masters of the Middle East and that there is no power vacuum and no need for patriarchy from outside. In this regard, China sees the current relationship between the United States and the Persian Gulf kingdoms as unfavorable and intends to establish it to its advantage. Thus, China seeks to engage in military relations and sensitive and sophisticated technologies such as ballistic missiles and the 5G network to gradually disrupt US-Persian Gulf relations in its favor and seems to be interested in participating in the Saudi ballistic missile project. One could notice the strategy is designed for this purpose.
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About the author:
Amin Bagheri is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, transnational governance, international peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.