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New evidence shows Saudi Arabia building ballistic missiles with China's help

A CNN investigation found evidence of burn pits that point to the kingdom manufacturing its own ballistic weapons
A Patriot missile battery is seen near Prince Sultan air base at al-Kharj on 20 February 2020 (AFP)

A new investigation has found that Saudi Arabia is building its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, according to satellite images and US intelligence. 

The CNN exclusive on Saudi Arabia's move was uncovered after satellite images suggested that the kingdom was manufacturing weapons in at least one location. 

The images revealed a burn operation that occurred at a facility near Dawadmi, which was evidence that they were disposing of excess missile production. 

When asked about any recent transfers of sensitive ballistic missiles technology between China and Saudi Arabia, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN that the two countries are “comprehensive strategic partners” and “have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including in the field of military trade”.

“Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the statement to CNN said.

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Saudi Arabia is the world’s single largest arms importer and is known to have bought weapons from China in the past, but until now has never been able to build its own.

In March, a report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) found that Saudi Arabia saw a 61 percent increase in arms imports over the past five years. 

Earlier this year, Riyadh announced it would invest more than $20bn in its domestic weapons industry, with a 2030 goal of spending around 50 percent of its military budget on local sources.

Building more weapons systems locally would naturally reduce Saudi Arabia's need to import the vast majority of its military hardware, munitions and spare parts - as it does currently. 

Saudi Arabia had previously sought to build weapons with the help of other nations, making it challenging to identify which weapons systems are being built at the facility seen in the satellite images, CNN quoted weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis as saying.

However, the kingdom's efforts to develop its own missiles could cause broader issues in the region, as discussions to restrict Iran’s missile technology by the US and other Gulf countries may be affected. Meanwhile, any US response to the weapons technology being developed could be complicated by Washington's relationship with China. 

Moreover, the news also comes as the US Senate backed a $650m missile sale to Riyadh earlier this month. 

The missiles, including 280 AIM-120C-7/C-8 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and 596 LAU-128 Missile Rail Launchers (MRL), will be used to arm fighter jets during its ongoing war in Yemen against the Houthis. 

However, the missile deal was met with backlash as US senators rejected it, citing the country’s involvement in the Yemen war, where millions face hunger and depend on aid support. 

A UN report published in November projected that the death toll from the war would reach 377,000 by the end of 2021. 

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