Western strategic experts and Saudi politicians said the US withdrawal of its Patriot anti-missile defence batteries from Saudi Arabia would be an opportunity for Riyadh to take the initiative to create a military and nuclear balance with Iran, as it looks to diversify sources and partners, including by striking agreements with France, Russia and South Korea.
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The US opted to withdraw two of its Patriot anti-missile systems that were originally sent to Saudi Arabia last year to strengthen the kingdom’s defences in the wake of Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers in the Arabian Sea.
American reports stated that the US servicemen who were deployed after Iran’s attacks on the Saudi oil installations and ships are preparing to leave. Furthermore, the Pentagon is reviewing its permanent US Navy presence in the Gulf region with the aim of reducing it as well.
Saudi Arabia felt the timing indicated that US officials were not fully committed to their security, or the understandings and agreements thought to be part of the long-term strategic partnership between the two countries.
The development of the local defence industry is one of the pillars of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s Vision 2030 plan designed to diversify the Saudi economy, which has been hard hit by the global economic recession.
Various lobbies and pressure circles in the United States object to Saudi Arabia’s steps to create a military balance vis-a-vis Iran, especially as such steps are linked to partnerships with US competitors like China and Russia that could threaten US companies’ competitive advantage in the kingdom.
There have been attempts to discourage the Saudi crown prince from taking this difficult path through warnings about its high costs and the impact of the armament option on the Saudi economy. Anthony Cordesman, a Gulf military analyst in Washington, warned that the Saudi plan to build a defence industry is not the best way to diversify the kingdom’s economy, even if it would create some jobs and boost its technology sector.
There is “virtually no way to waste money more effectively than trying to create an effective technology base or fund a weapons assembly effort in an area of industry and technology which is so demanding, offers so few real-world benefits in job creation,” Cordesman told Inside Arabia.
The Saudis do not view the military race with the Iranians as the only way to achieve a balance of power. Growing their military might also goes along with the kingdom’s efforts to play a central security, economic and diplomatic role in the Middle East that is in line with their regional weight.
Last year, Saudi Arabia was reported to have established a desert facility focused on testing and potentially building ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads thousands of kilometres, a likely effort to counter Iran’s programme.
Next year, the kingdom will start producing drones to match Iranian drones that are expected to be able to carry bombs some 1,500 km. In 2017, China agreed to build a facility in Saudi Arabia to produce autonomous aircrafts in what will be its first foreign military manufacturing site.
Alessandro Arduino, a researcher specialising in autonomous aircraft warfare at the Middle East Institute in Singapore, commented: “The Middle East has become a theatre for drone warfare. Their deployment has ushered in a new era of post-coronavirus deterrence and turned conventional military doctrine on its head. From Yemen to Libya and Syria, warring parties resist calls for a truce, emboldened by the role of armed UAVs.”
Dorsey, however, believes that none of these countries can currently afford the financial and technological cost of such military endeavours at a time when their economies are subject to far-reaching global strikes, oil prices have collapsed and a global pandemic is spreading. He pointed out the fact that Iran is struggling to adjust to US sanctions, while Saudi Arabia is facing painful financial problems and structural reforms.
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