IN 2016 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, announced the latest stage of “Saudisation”—the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi ones. It now appears the policy does not stop at swapping out bankers and bakers, but extends to ballistic missiles.
Satellite photos analysed by researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and reported by the Washington Post, appear to show that Saudi Arabia has been building a factory for rocket engines, at an existing missile base in al-Watah, south-west of Riyadh. It seems to be configured for solid-fuel rockets, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled ones.
Saudi Arabia is no newcomer to missiles. Having watched Iran and Iraq fling them at each other during the 1980s, it bought a few dozen DF-3 missiles from China in 1987. It came close to unleashing them after being struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war in 1991. In the 2000s it probably picked up a batch of newer, more accurate Chinese DF-21s.
Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, has been honing its missile force despite Western opposition and UN rebukes, conducting 135 test launches since 1990. On December 1st it tested one thought capable of comfortably reaching any corner of Saudi soil (see map). In January Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s national security council, insisted that although his country was not looking to expand the range of its missiles, “it is continuously working on increasing the precision.” That is reassuring for Europeans and Americans; less so for Saudis.
Nor is Iran the only concern. Hizbullah, a Lebanese militant group nurtured and armed by Iran, has a growing arsenal of missiles; some can already reach the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia. Israel is also armed to the teeth. Though Prince Muhammad is on good terms with the Jewish state, satellite images published in 2013 reportedly showed that one of the Saudi DF-3 launching pads at al-Watah was set in the direction of Tel Aviv.
Because missiles are ideal delivery systems for nuclear weapons, news of the plant has also revived worries about Saudi Arabia’s atomic intentions. America’s abandonment of a multinational nuclear deal with Iran last year has increased the risk that Iran will resume large-scale enrichment of uranium. Saudi Arabia has vowed to keep pace. It wants to build two nuclear reactors and insists on its right to enrich uranium (and to reprocess spent fuel from those reactors, another path to a bomb). “Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb,” warned Prince Muhammad last March, “we will follow suit.” The Trump administration has refused to sell civil nuclear technology on these terms.
So the Saudis may turn to other nuclear friends. Western diplomats and spooks have long been concerned that Pakistan, whose own nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, might be a ready supplier of know-how, fuel or bombs. In 1999 Saudi Arabia’s then defence minister horrified American officials by touring Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and meeting A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Ties remain close. Prince Muhammad was due to agree on $14bn of investment in Pakistan during a visit to the country on February 16th.
Another option lies further east. Michael Elleman, a missile expert at IISS, a think-tank, says he is almost certain that the apparent rocket factory was “designed, equipped and constructed by an outside entity”. Saudi Arabia has “no capacity” for such a project. The facility, he notes, closely resembles a Chinese one in Lantian. Saudisation, evidently, has some way to go.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Protection rocket”