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Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Nuclear Missiles–Again?

June 10, 2019

The country’s ailing monarch, King Salman. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A longform scoop published by CNN on June 5 claimed the oil-rich kingdom was in the process of acquiring Chinese missile technology. This intelligence was provided by at least three unnamed sources connected to Congressional Committees in Washington, DC. The origins of the revelation, according to CNN, were chance encounters in the Middle East between staff affiliated with Democratic members of at least one committee and a “foreign counterpart.” But no concrete evidence has surfaced proving Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear-capable missiles from abroad.

The report from CNN did connect its topic with recent satellite photos of a suspicious facility in Saudi Arabia whose alleged purpose is assembling rocket boosters.

From CNN:

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been given access to the Saudi intelligence, though it has not received a specific briefing on the subject, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and US foreign policy broadly, learned about the Saudi intelligence earlier this year only after it was discovered by Democratic staff on the committee, including in one instance when a staff member on an unrelated trip to the Middle East was informed of details through a foreign counterpart, two of the sources told CNN.
There had already been at least two classified briefings on issues related to the topic where the information could have been disclosed to senators, according to one source.
When the staff brought the new information to the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, he immediately requested– and was granted– a classified, senators-only briefing for committee members on the details, a rare occurrence that underscored the importance of the discovery and the administration’s failure to initially brief the committee on the matter.


Unverified claims of Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missiles have enjoyed viral mileage for years. The kingdom does possess a collection of Chinese DF-3 ICBMs it bought in the 1980s but since 2014 rumors began circulating that Riyadh managed to boost its arsenal with more advanced DF-21 IRBMs kept at an unknown location. The DF-21 is a road mobile system that can be armed with conventional payloads. It gained some notoriety for its conversion into a “carrier killer” missile by the PLA as part of an elaborate anti-access and area denial strategy. But its existence in Saudi Arabia is doubtful and originated from a former US intelligence analyst named Jonathan Scherck who mentioned it in his self-published memoir.

CNN’s own reporting offers more context than actual details and highlights the gruesome murder of Jamal Kashoggi in 2018 as a low point in Saudi-US cooperation. The lack of meaningful input from any intelligence agency or Trump administration official further obfuscates the issue. With the third largest defense budget in the world, Saudi Arabia buys military equipment and weapons from at least 20 countries, be they French truck howitzers or Chinese attack drones. Riyadh’s plans for establishing a state-owned military-industrial sector are well-known too.

Based on what can be gleaned from open sources, three assumptions are useful when judging the likelihood of Saudi Arabia enlisting China’s help for a ballistic missile program.

Assumption 1: Evidence of facilities in the kingdom meant for assembling missile parts negates rumors connected to road mobile Chinese IRBM’s hidden by the Saudis as a deterrent versus Iran.

Assumption 2: If the Trump administration is unfazed by selling nuclear research technology to Riyadh, using it as a launchpad for a broader domestic nuclear weapons program is unrealistic. Its arms sales might be generous, but the US is a strict non-proliferator and its allies who’ve acquired nuclear arsenals (like Israel) or attempted to (like Taiwan) relied on their own clandestine efforts.

Assumption 3: Keeping the two previous assumptions in mind, arranging a technology transfer for Chinese conventional ballistic missiles is a sound investment–it’s been done with several countries and boosts the client’s aggregate firepower. But there are no definitive signs of a Saudi nuclear missile program, an endeavor bound to be risky and time-consuming.


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