An Israeli source who spoke with Breaking Defense of condition of anonymity said that attitudes in Saudi Arabia are changing, “not only in domestic issues, but also their understanding that Israel is not an enemy, and that both Riyadh and Jerusalem are both potential targets for the Iranian ballistic missiles [that are] being developed at an accelerated pace.”
The apparently closer ties between the two countries, long considered deadly enemies, started with news about the apparent sale of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system to Saudi Arabia. The source, London-based Al-Khaleej Online, is a website reporting on news from the Gulf. It cited diplomatic sources who said that the alleged deal reflects a warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There was no confirmation of the report from Saudi officials.
No details were given on the number of batteries allegedly purchased or the cost of the purchase, estimated at tens of millions of dollars. According to the report, the batteries will be deployed on Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen to defend against Iranian missiles used by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Officially, Israel has denied that such a deal exists. But when talking to experts here, they say that while they don’t know about such a deal, but add that it would make military and diplomatic sense.
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Breaking Defense that the close cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel exists “as the attempts to use international leverage against Iran fail, this cooperation will grow further.” He added that the relations must be “under the radar” and that press reports of Israeli defensive weapon systems that are on their way to Saudi Arabia “make a lot of sense.”
Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islam and the Arab world, told Breaking Defense that he read about the Iron Dome deal in the press. While he doesn’t know whether the deal has actually happened, he can say that relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been improved dramatically: “Senior Saudi officials visited Israel recently, and it is clear that the Saudis see Israel now, not as a problem, but as the solution. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran can turn very quickly to a major military confrontation and it is clear the the Saudis want to be ready.“
Another sign: recent reports about Saudi Arabia building facilities for the development and production of ballistic missiles.
In the corridors of the Israeli defense establishment, you can hear one question, phrased in different styles but referring to the same issue: “When will Israel sell military systems to Saudi Arabia?”
The question is not answered, but unlike in the past, people respond with smiles, rather than pointing to the person who asked the question as if he is drunk.
The Saudis are investing big money in order to have the capability to manufacture long range ballistic missiles and tactical ones.
According to recent satellite images, the Saudis are building a secret base that, according to some experts, will be used for testing and assembling ballistic missiles.
Yair Ramati, former director of the Israeli missile defense organization (IMDO) and one of Israel’s leading missile experts, told Breaking Defense that, for more than three decades Saudi, Arabia balanced its power projection capabilities with a combination of modern aircraft and Chinese IRBM ballistic missiles — in late 80’s CSS-2/DF-3 and from 2005 the CSS-5/DF-21.
“Recently, we identified some signs that the Saudi ministry of defense derived some lessons from the Houthi war, such as utilization of short-range tactical missiles and small attack drones. That is why they are seeking local missile capabilities from Ukraine,” Ramati said.
The rationale is clear: The Saudis see that, in spite of sanctions imposed by the United States, the Iranians are continuing to build various ballistic and cruise missiles, based on both their own R&D and foreign help, mainly from North Korea.
Long-range ballistic missiles are not newcomers to the kingdom. According to Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies (INSS) who served at the Israeli National Security Council coordinating the work on Iran under three prime ministers, the Saudis purchased about 10 launchers and several dozen Chinese DF-3A missiles (NATO designation CSS-2), which apparently were customized to carry conventional warheads. Israeli sources told Breaking Defense that the Saudis paid for the missiles approximately $3 billion. The missiles were deployed in closely guarded sites in Saudi Arabia and were maintained by Chinese technicians.
The covert deal led to a crisis in relations between Riyadh and Washington, particularly because the missiles were originally intended to carry nuclear warheads. The crisis ended when Saudi Arabia agreed to join the Non Proliferation Treaty.
The DF-3A, a one-stage liquid-fueled missile, is now obsolete. According to the Israeli researcher, the Saudis will want to replace it with something more advanced as these missiles are cumbersome to prepare for launching and are not very accurate.
Israeli experts say that in 2005 the Saudis purchased the Chinese CSS-5, also known as the DF-21 or East Wind 21. This is is a two-stage ballistic missile that uses solid fuel, which shortens launch preparation time and makes maintenance easier. It has a range of 1,700 kilometers and can carry a payload of about 600 kilograms. It is much more accurate than the old DF-3A, with its CEP (Circular Error Probable, a measure of accuracy) estimated at 1,600 feet. Later models are equipped with terminal guidance, which enables it to achieve a much more impressive 32-foot CEP, but experts say that it is unlikely that these later models were exported.
According to Guzansky, it is possible the Saudis have bought other Chinese missiles in addition to the DF-21, such as DF-11s or the DF-15, as well as Pakistani-made missiles, such as one of the Shaheen series. Other experts say they doubt the Saudis have the Shaheen.
According to the INSS researcher, officials in Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of a significant conventional military buildup, have often stated that the kingdom is focusing on a nuclear program to meet the country’s energy needs and reduce its dependence on oil. However, Saudi Arabia has previously examined the military nuclear path, and, to this end, has increased its cooperation with a number of countries, in particular Pakistan. It has had military cooperation with Pakistan for some years and funded part of its nuclear program. In addition, several unusual comments from Riyadh since 2011 have indicated Saudi Arabia’s willingness to examine the nuclear path should Iran from attain military nuclear capability.
The INSS researcher says that the Saudis’ motivation in purchasing the missiles is Iran’s progress in its missile program and the growth and improvement in its ground-to-ground missile arsenal: “It is possible that the progress in the Iranian nuclear program will lead to increased Saudi pressure on Pakistan to provide the kingdom with some type of nuclear guarantees, whether through extended deterrence, the stationing of nuclear forces in Saudi Arabia, or transfer of nuclear warheads to the Saudis for installation on the new missiles “
According to Guzansky, not only have Saudi Arabia’s concerns not been mitigated by the interim agreement signed with the Islamic Republic, they have actually intensified, if only because of the agreement’s significance for Iran’s international and regional status. The Saudis are anxious about the Iranian buildup, and it may be that the “revelations” on its missile arsenal are part of an attempt by Saudi Arabia to make its fears public.
Guzansky says that, in recent years, deliberations on strategic issues inside and outside the kingdom have become more public, which makes it likely that further “revelations” can be expected. This is due to the negotiations with Iran and the significance Riyadh attributes to deterrent signals of this kind. The deal itself is also significant, indicating China’s growing interest in selling advanced weaponry to the region ,and to Saudi Arabia, China’s largest oil supplier.
He emphasized that the weakness of America’s standing in the region may increase Saudi Arabia’s search for greater deterrence.
According to the INSS researcher, to date, there is no solid evidence that Saudi Arabia intends to pursue the nuclear route, even though nuclear weapons in Iranian hands would be a grave threat to the kingdom. However, in light of its great wealth and relative military weakness, Saudi Arabia will likely seek to construct security arrangements that will lend it more independence in decision making and better chances of maintaining a stable balance of deterrence in the Gulf over time.
Israel, as a rule, does not favor equipping an Arab state with advanced weapons that are capable of threatening it. In the past, Israel actively opposed any such buildup. However, in recent years, given the joint Iranian threat, Israel has turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s military buildup and that of some of the other Gulf states.
In recent months Saudi Arabia has permitted Asian airlines to cross its airspace on their flights to Israel.