Pakistan is Saudi Arabia's likeliest partner in ballistic missile programme; move helps Islamabad return Riyadh's largesse

The Saudis are at it again. After similar efforts in the 1980s when Riyadh got itself the rather erratic DF-3 from China, reports now suggest that the Saudis may have gone one better and decided to develop their own ballistic missile programme. Imagery analysis seems to indicate a solid propellant plant and a testing site deep inside the country. The degree of ‘ownership’ is, however, doubtful. The Saudis are accustomed to buying what they want. Their own expertise to start even a nascent programme is probably negligible. Clearly, someone somewhere is helping, and a lot.

The Saudis, much like everyone else, have their own national security concerns. In the 1970s, when Iran and Iraq were hurling missiles at each other in the so-called “war of the cities”, the Saudis, among others, decided it was time to acquire a few missiles of their own. There were other concerns too, including some domestic ones. The house of Saud could not be seen as lagging behind the capabilities of others in the region, including Pakistan. An analysis by the  Federation of American Scientists at the time outlines the diverse motivations towards acquiring missilery from Beijing, among which was also an annoyance with Washington over the pressure to concede on the Palestinian issue. So, it turned to China and acquired the basic DF-3, and later, probably, the far more reliable DF-21.

A satellite image annotating a suspected Saudi ballistic missile base and test facility outside of the town of al-Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia. AP

A satellite image annotating a suspected Saudi ballistic missile base and test facility outside of the town of al-Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia. AP

Those motivations may have changed somewhat. Though Iran’s missile and nuclear capabilities remain a major issue, there are others as well. Among them is a perception of waning US power in West Asia, which fuelled a far more muscular Saudi foreign policy of which the intervention in Yemen is only one example. Such perceptions are only buoyed by the growing influence of China in the region. Loss of faith in the US baton is also evident elsewhere. Analysts have been warning of the dangers of a missile arms race in West Asia, as Israel prepares to upgrade its own missile and rocket force. That in itself is enough to rile Riyadh.

Meanwhile, a test case will be apparent soon. The Saudis are in talks with the US for a massive deal for nuclear power plants valued at up to $800 billion which comes with an insistence that they would produce their own fuel. This has so far been prevented by the US Congress, enraged by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Underlying all this is some uneasiness, sparked by fears that such a deal could lay the stepping stones for its own covert programme.

Into all this volatility comes the Saudi-Pakistan relationship, which has slowly become evolved — or degraded — into something of a dependency. From the time of the effusive former president Asif Ali Zardari and his successor Nawaz Sharif, the country’s serious debt crisis has led Pakistani governments to look for alternative sources of funds. In 2014, for instance, the mysterious donor who loaned $1.5 billion to Sharif was none other than Saudi Arabia, causing the flagging Pakistani rupee to rally to its highest levels in thirty years. Reportedly, this loan was given against the personal guarantee of the prime minister. The very next year, the payback was apparent when the Saudis demanded Pakistani aircraft, ships and ground troops for the war in Yemen. That proposal was unceremoniously shot down by the Pakistani Parliament in a rare display of courage. As their “man in Islamabad”, this would have put Sharif into a quandary. After all, he and his family had enjoyed Saudi hospitality during the Musharraf years.

There is another less remembered period of Saudi largesse. Sharif was head of the government during the 1998 nuclear tests. Hit by sanctions, the Pakistan economy’s collapse was prevented by Saudi generosity in terms of billions in oils support. It was no surprise therefore that in 1999, a Saudi Prince visited Pakistani nuclear facilities at Kahuta and viewed the Ghauri missile, access even denied to an earlier prime minister Benazir Bhutto. As Gary Samore, former US president Barack Obama’s advisor on non-proliferation observed: “The Saudis believed they have some understanding with Pakistan, that, in extremis, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan.”

The satellite imagery seems to suggest that the Saudis have made the transition from an “understanding” to outright assistance from a nuclear weapons state that was well known for its proliferation activities. After all AQ Khan, 'father' of Pakistan's nuclear bomb who conceived what was once known as the “Nuclear WalMart” was widely believed to have aided Saudi Arabia in accessing some nascent capability, in the form of designs and data.

While the Saudis may not yet have a nuclear bomb, the imagery seems to indicate a clear intent to set up its own missile programme. To reiterate, the ‘owning’ of a missile programme would involve assistance by the several thousand retired servicemen and technicians already present in the Kingdom, and a few specialised experts in the field. Given the close Chinese angle, it may even involve Chinese scientists and engineers. But they’re hard to hide. The bulk of personnel at such sites would certainly be brown-skinned, Muslim and strongly sympathetic.

Even a nascent Saudi capability would set West Asia by the ears, creating a maelstrom that would challenge even the most capable US diplomat. Though US president Donald Trump may still be set on that massive deal for nuclear energy, he is unlikely to ever countenance a Saudi weapon that would even marginally complicate US “interests” in the region. The most obvious path is to find the source supplier of this growing expertise. That shouldn’t be difficult. The Saudi footprint in Pakistan just keeps getting bigger every year, so that it's hard to miss.

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 21:57:17 IST

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