Saudi-Chinese Cooperation in the Production of Ballistic Missiles

On 23 December 2021, the US intelligence agencies announced that Saudi Arabia, with the help of China, was producing solid-propellant ballistic missiles. This news was published by CNN with the help of satellite maps showing the missile factory constructed in the city of Ad Dawadimi near the capital, Riyadh.

China and Saudi Arabia have been developing their relations since the beginning of diplomatic relations in 1990. After the Chinese President traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2016, the two sides signed a comprehensive and strategic agreement. In February 2019, following the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Beijing, the two countries signed 35 agreements worth 28 billion dollars. These agreements gradually transformed relations between the two countries from a transactional cooperation to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Impacts on the region

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has pushed for the purchase and production of missiles. Previously, Riyadh spent its oil revenues to purchase air force equipment, but the war in Yemen highlighted the weaknesses of the Saudi army, and Riyadh realized that advanced air force alone did not determine the fate of the war. Yemeni missiles have a significant impact on the war.

In addition, the Iranian military presence in Syria and the supply of Houthi weapons in Yemen alerted Saudi Arabia to changes in the region. Iran’s presence in some Arab countries raised speculation about its military power. Although the Saudi air force and military equipment are more advanced than Iran’s, Tehran can use its missiles such as Sajjil; Zolfaghar; Shahab 1, 2, and 3; Fateh-110; Safir; Ra’ad; Khorramshahr; and Bavar-373 to target Saudi Arabia remotely. The Iranian threat was the main reason Saudi Arabia began producing missiles.

On the other hand, the capability to mass-produce ballistic missiles coheres with broader dynamics in Saudi’s national strategy. Saudi Arabia’s 2022 defense budget allocation accounts for a 10 percent reduction in aggregate spending and emphasizes localized production of several capabilities. The US opposition to the sale of ballistic missiles, pulling its most advanced missile defense system and patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia and relocating to East Asia, made Saudi Arabia more determined in pursuing this strategy.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia bought its first missiles from China called DF-3. They lacked accuracy and mobility, and Saudi Arabia reportedly never used them. For the second time, Riyadh bought DF-21 missiles from China in 2007, which were unveiled in 2014.

China’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the production of ballistic missiles reflects China’s soft military approach in the Middle East. China has tried to create a soft military presence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf monarchies refusing to cause tension with the dominant military powers in the Middle East such as the US with a presence of almost 50,000 personnel and Britain and France with 3,000 personnel. A soft military presence means participating in temporary military peace operations, participating in maneuvers, peacekeeping forces, military technical services, military training institutes, and military investments in contracting countries rather than establishing physical military bases. The further expansion of China’s soft military presence overseas is necessary to protect its growing foreign commercial investments and other interests.

In line with the soft military approach, China did help in providing security in the Middle East through multilateral operations. For example, in 2006, China was one of the first countries to contribute to the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. Similarly, in 2008, China sent its navy vessels to the Gulf of Aden to take part in anti-piracy operations following a resolution of the United Nations.

With a soft military presence, such as investing in the joint production of military technology, it is better to maintain a deeper presence than to provoke the competitors in the host country by establishing military bases.

Understand collaboration in a broader context

Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with China in the production of ballistic missiles is not just about “transfer of expertise.”

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database, Saudi Arabia was the largest importer of arms worth a total of 13130 million dollars in 2017-2020. It imported the most weapons from 11 countries including the US, the UK, France, Canada, Germany, China, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, and Turkey respectively from 2017 to 2020.

China is the sixth largest supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The top five countries may also have offered conditions to help the kingdom produce missiles, but Riyadh has chosen China because of the special conditions of cooperation.

The US, a major supporter of Saudi Arabia, has opposed repeated requests for the purchase of ballistic missiles by the Kingdom.

The US is concerned about the arms race in the region because such missiles are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Washington is committed to Israel’s security and its military superiority. In addition, the US is a member and founder of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) founded in 1987 which banned the export of any missile capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) to a range of at least 300 kilometers (190 miles).

Europe, especially the UK, France, Germany, and Belgium, are Saudi Arabia’s second-largest arms suppliers, but they are not generous in meeting high-tech needs. Apart from fearing the development of an arms race in the Middle East, European countries make the export of high-tech military and civilian technology conditional on respect for human rights and interference in the countries’ political affairs.

Civil society is also very active and powerful in Western countries, and it opposes the military supply of countries with a bad record in human rights and involved in war, such as Saudi Arabia. Legal and private institutions and NGOs in Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Finland, and Germany have repeatedly opposed the export of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemeni war.

The level of technology is another factor that does not permit Saudi Arabia to deal with other countries easily. Saudi Arabia has no experience in producing or testing ballistic missiles, and it needs a country that can fully localize such missiles for Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia had a covert partnership on the Grom-2 (Thunder-2) missile system with Ukraine in 2018. It is a ballistic missile with a range of 280 kilometers (174 miles) and high accuracy, and it has existed since the Soviet era. Reportedly, Ukraine has not had the financial resources to complete it, so Saudi Arabia provided financial assistance, but the system could not help strengthening the Riyadh missile.

Based on the description, China is the best option Saudi Arabia currently has to produce ballistic missiles. Riyadh has two experiences buying missiles with Beijing. Saudi Arabia views China as a reliable partner as it has fewer restrictions on sharing technology.  

Unlike Russia, which sees geopolitical and political goals as a guide to its policy and influence in the Middle East, China is concerned with economic development that is less sensitive and hides its geopolitical goals behind economic activities.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (2013) is seen as a guide to China’s economic goals in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia has a special place within the initiative. The maritime security domain in the Arabian Peninsula of Aden-Red Sea corridor is a major element for Beijing and it is sensitive to Saudi Arabia’s security. The maritime domain is a critical segment of Beijing’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), the ‘Road’ in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China is trying to create a wedge between the US and Gulf allies. In mid-January 2022, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of foreign ministers visited Beijing. “The Middle East is suffering from long-existing unrest and conflicts due to foreign interventions…we believe the people of the Middle East are the masters of the Middle East. There is no ‘power vacuum,’ and there is no need of ‘patriarchy from outside,’” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after the visit.

China sees the current relationship between the US and the Persian Gulf monarchies as unfair and intends to re-establish it in its favor. In this way, China seeks to engage in military relations and sensitive and complex technologies such as ballistic missiles and 5G Network to gradually disrupt US-Persian Gulf relations in its favor. The interest in participating in Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile factory may have been designed for this purpose.