Saudi missile program expanded with help from China, US intel said to show

Trump administration reportedly withheld information from Congress, raising concern it is tacitly approving move; fears raised Riyadh could be seeking nuclear weapons

In this November 30, 2018 file photograph, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman adjusts his robe as leaders gather for the group at the G20 Leader's Summit at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)
In this November 30, 2018 file photograph, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman adjusts his robe as leaders gather for the group at the G20 Leader's Summit at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)

US intelligence has shown that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its ballistic missile program with support from China, CNN reported Wednesday night, signalling a possible shift in US policy not to allow missile proliferation in the Middle East.

Quoting unnamed sources, the report said that US lawmakers were incensed that the Trump administration initially did not disclose the classified information on the missiles.

Senators in April sharply criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a public briefing for not sharing information, but the substance behind the dispute appeared cryptic at the time.

The United States, unlike China, is signatory to a 1987 pact of nations that restricts missile exports. Saudi Arabia has been keen to preserve an edge over regional arch-foe Iran, which manufactures its own missiles.

Satellite images of a Saudi military base published in January by The Washington Post indicated that Riyadh was testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles. Further raising the stakes for any such program were comments by Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said last year the kingdom wouldn’t hesitate to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads to targets thousands of kilometers away.

In this November 13, 2018, satellite image from Planet Labs Inc that has been annotated by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, a suspected Saudi ballistic missile base and test facility is seen outside of the town of al-Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said heavy investment in missiles often correlates with an interest in nuclear weapons. Having studied the images, Lewis said in January that the Saudi installations closely resembled a design used by China, though they were smaller.

The Chinese have increasingly sold armed drones to Saudi Arabia and other Mideast nations, even as the US has been blocking sales of its own to allies over proliferation concerns. Beijing also sold Riyadh variants of its Dongfeng ballistic missiles, the only ones the kingdom was previously believed to have in its arsenal.

The CNN report said more classified evidence existed pointing to Beijing’s involvement, adding that US President Donald Trump’s administration was appearing to have tacitly approved the development.

US and Saudi officials refused to comment on the report, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not deny the details but added that Beijing and Riyadh were “comprehensive strategic partners” and that they “maintain friendly cooperation in all areas, including in the area of arms sales. Such cooperation does not violate any international laws, nor does it involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Meanwhile, US senators across the political spectrum on Wednesday moved to block Trump’s plan to sell $8.1 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies.

The Trump administration last month said it would use emergency powers to defy Congress and provide munitions, aircraft maintenance and other military components to Saudi Arabia along with the United Arab Emirates.

In this file photo taken on May 21, 2019 US Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham gives a statement after closed-door briefing on Iran in the auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

The move infuriated lawmakers who believe the weapons could be used to kill civilians in war-ravaged Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis lead a coalition supporting pro-government forces, and millions of residents are at risk of starvation.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is usually in lockstep with Trump, voiced hope for “strong bipartisan support” in preventing the sales.

“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia,” Graham said, referring to the kingdom’s powerful crown prince.

Anger with Saudi Arabia has grown in Congress since the October killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post and lived in Virginia.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP /Virginia Mayo, File)

He was strangled and his body dismembered after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork, according to Turkish and US officials.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who has been among the most outspoken critics of Saudi Arabia, said that only Congress could change the dynamics between the two countries and work to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia treats us like the junior partner in this relationship, chopping up US residents and torturing others, all the while demanding we remain silent and sell them more weapons,” Murphy said.

US lawmakers have also been outraged over the Trump administration’s eagerness to send nuclear technology and expertise to Saudi Arabia — again skirting the normal US process as Riyadh has not signed a so-called Section 123 agreement to guarantee peaceful use.

Senator Tim Kaine, who pressed the Energy Department for more detail on the transfers, said that two of the seven transfers took place after the slaying of Khashoggi — including one on October 18, 2018, just 16 days after he died.

“President Trump’s eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interests and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region,” Kaine said in a statement.

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