Saudi Arabia may have constructed a production site for ballistic missiles, The Washington Post reports, citing satellite imagery.
On January 23, The Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia appears to have constructed a plant for producing ballistic missiles at al-Watah, west of Riyadh. The complex has previously been known to be a base for Saudi Arabia’s missile forces, but, according to satellite imagery reviewed by several experts, the base appears to have expanded. It is not currently known when the expansion efforts began, but they would have occurred between 2013 – when the base was first identified – and November 2018, the date of the satellite imagery.
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert, pointed to a potential rocket-engine test stand for solid-fuel rockets, which he said shared similarities with China’s rocket test stands. According to the report, instead of testing the engines out in the open, “China partially covers the flame shooting out of the engine and cools the test building with water so it does not catch fire,” and the Saudi set-up appears to be similar.
In decades past, Beijing supplied Riyadh with the DF-21 ballistic missile, demonstrating China’s willingness to partner with Saudi Arabia on missile cooperation. Pakistan, a close partner of Saudi Arabia’s, has developed a strong domestic missile industry thanks in part to cooperation with Beijing. But outside of the similarities in designs, there is no confirmation that the apparent missile facility in al-Watah has Chinese assistance.
The Washington Post said that requests for comment from U.S. government agencies, as well as the Chinese and Pakistani embassies, went unanswered.
It is not known whether the plant is operational; the experts cited by the Post pointed out that empty parking lots might suggest it is not yet ready for production. Furthermore, the Post reported that “[t]he plant is smaller than those of other countries, suggesting it could have a limited capacity.”
Saudi Arabia is interested in short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that would allow it to posture against rival Iran, which has manufactured a number of ballistic missiles with ranges up to 2,000 kilometers. In recent years, in response to terror attacks that Tehran blamed on its Gulf rivals, Iran has conducted a number of missile strikes – with mixed results – on militant positions in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, demonstrating at the least Iran’s ability to hit targets at a distance.
Given that China has sold Saudi Arabia ballistic missiles in the past, Beijing may be willing to sell Saudi Arabia technology for missile production, particularly if the reports of Chinese involvement in the establishment of the production facility are accurate. Another option for Saudi Arabia is to procure missile technology through Ukraine, where Riyadh has been reported to be financing the development of the Grom-2 short-range ballistic missile.
Saudi Arabia has not developed nuclear weapons technology, and is not known to be pursuing it, so the country would be arming its missiles with conventional warheads. However, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has previously suggested that should Iran develop a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will follow suit. Saudi Arabia has insisted on its right to enrich uranium domestically and is looking to set up a domestic civilian nuclear program. Though the kingdom opposes the Iranian nuclear deal, reached between Iran and world powers in 2015, its demand for a sovereign right to enrich uranium is strengthened by the fact that the 2015 deal allows Iran to continue low levels of enrichment activity.
Lewis told the Post, “The possibility that Saudi Arabia is going to build longer-range missiles and seek nuclear weapons – we imagine that they can’t. But we are maybe underestimating their desire and their capabilities.”