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U.S. Aid to Saudi Arabia on Missile Defense Is Not Unconditional 

Biden must make it clear to Saudi leaders that continued ballistic missile cooperation with China will jeopardize U.S. missile defense assistance.

By , a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.
A member of the U.S. Air Force looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 20, 2020.
A member of the U.S. Air Force looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 20, 2020.
A member of the U.S. Air Force looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 20, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The White House has repeatedly emphasized that U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi and other Arab leaders in mid-July will cover a variety of issues beyond soaring international oil prices.

The administration is right to insist on this message. Biden’s conversation with the Saudis shouldn’t be limited to asking them to pump more oil, which isn’t going to solve the energy market’s problems in the short run anyway.

There are other priorities U.S. officials should and hopefully will address with the Saudis—all usefully summarized in a letter issued by six leading House Democrats on June 7. Saudi Arabia’s recent ballistic missile procurement plans—and possibly indigenous development with the help of China—is one of those priorities, and it is what worries the U.S. Defense Department the most.

The White House has repeatedly emphasized that U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi and other Arab leaders in mid-July will cover a variety of issues beyond soaring international oil prices.

The administration is right to insist on this message. Biden’s conversation with the Saudis shouldn’t be limited to asking them to pump more oil, which isn’t going to solve the energy market’s problems in the short run anyway.

There are other priorities U.S. officials should and hopefully will address with the Saudis—all usefully summarized in a letter issued by six leading House Democrats on June 7. Saudi Arabia’s recent ballistic missile procurement plans—and possibly indigenous development with the help of China—is one of those priorities, and it is what worries the U.S. Defense Department the most.

Biden will find it hard to discourage the Saudis from enhancing their ballistic missile and armed drone capabilities. Riyadh seems intent on going down that path—which it began in the late 1980s when it purchased an unspecified but likely small number of medium-range Chinese ballistic missiles—for two reasons: first, the serious limitations of missile defense; and second, the failure of world powers, including the United States, to curb Iran’s missile program, which is the largest in the Middle East.

Yet despite the difficulty of Biden’s task, he should make every attempt to persuade the Saudis because the proliferation of ballistic missiles in the Middle East is inherently destabilizing. Indeed, the last thing the region needs is an offensive missile race given how powerful and destructive those weapons are. And if Iran and Saudi Arabia (as well as potentially others in the region) ever acquire nuclear arms, ballistic missiles would be an effective if not ideal delivery system given their affordability, range, and speed.


Many analysts point to the increasingly uncertain U.S. commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia as another important reason why the Saudis are investing in an expanded missile program. (In September of last year, the United States withdrew its own Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia despite a spate of Houthi attacks against the kingdom.)

The fact that the Saudis are less reassured than ever when it comes to Washington’s willingness to protect them from Iranian aggression may have influenced their security decision-making. But even if those concerns didn’t exist, it’s unclear that Riyadh would have given up on the offensive missile option altogether.

Saudi Arabia has realized, much like the rest of the world, that no matter how potent missile defense is, it can’t stop sophisticated missile and drone attacks.

Saudi Arabia has realized, much like the rest of the world, that no matter how potent missile defense is, it can’t stop sophisticated missile and drone attacks, which the Iranians and their Houthi allies in Yemen have launched repeatedly against the kingdom over the past few years, most devastatingly in the fall of 2019 against Saudi oil installations. In late March of this year, the Houthis successfully struck multiple civilian targets in several parts of the kingdom, including energy and water desalination facilities.

Even the best U.S. technology, which the Saudis own with their Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, has been incapable of defending against complex and simultaneous attacks. Israel is reported to have made advances lately in missile defense technology, having successfully tested a new laser system called “Iron Beam,” but definitive conclusions about its effectiveness, especially before it gets tested in real-life combat, are vastly premature. Even if Saudi Arabia is interested in missile defense cooperation with Israel—which it is—this new system won’t be operational anytime soon.

In addition to missile defense’s operational imperfections, there is its enormous price tag. It costs billions of dollars to acquire and maintain advanced missile defense systems. That’s an incredibly inefficient, though still inescapable, way to defend against much cheaper attacking drones and missiles. (The latter, depending on their specifications, could cost a few million dollars, whereas the former costs as little as a few thousand dollars.) It’s simply unsustainable even for the wealthiest of countries.

Of course, none of this means that the Saudis will forgo or limit their investments in missile defense. But it does suggest that they—like many other countries around the world, including those in NATO—might no longer rely exclusively on missile defense to protect their cities and critical infrastructure.

This scenario would have had a lower probability had Iran not had carte blanche to continuously expand and improve its own missile program. U.S. diplomacy and sanctions as well as Israel’s use of force in recent years have all failed to constrain Iran’s arsenal. Every time Washington has raised the issue of missiles with Tehran, the latter has immediately ruled out any compromise.

Regional or multilateral diplomacy is another avenue to address Iran’s missiles. The Saudis and the Iranians themselves reportedly have held several rounds of direct talks in Baghdad since 2021, and although Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan seemed pleased with the progress that’s been made, he admitted that there still was a long way to go. It’s unclear what those areas of convergence are, but it’s doubtful that Iran has agreed to limit its missile program in any way.

Without U.S. technology and involvement, a shared early warning system is impossible.

The Iranians have been pretty consistent on this issue, whether in their talks with regional countries, the Europeans, or the United States. In 2018, Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, the chief commander of Khatam al-Anbia Air Defense Base, said Iran’s missile program was a “red line.” Three years later, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reaffirmed the Islamic regime’s position that the missiles were “nonnegotiable.” Iran’s missile program has always been a central element of the country’s strategy to not only defend itself but also project power beyond its borders.

Riyadh wishes to create a stronger deterrent against Tehran by demonstrating that it is developing an ability to fight fire with fire. The ultimate question for the Saudis is whether this approach will succeed. Most likely it won’t because understanding what deters the Iranians has been an incredibly difficult exercise for all of Tehran’s adversaries.

The United States, itself, has struggled to prevent the Iranians from launching attacks against Arab partners and cultivating violent militias across the Middle East for decades. The Trump administration threw everything but the kitchen sink at Iran with its maximum pressure policy, killing its top military commander, Qassem Suleimani, in January 2020 in a drone strike, and it still failed to deter Iran and its non-state allies from engaging in various hostile acts in the region.

The Saudi aspiration to acquire more powerful missiles could very possibly have the opposite effect too. Iran is extremely sensitive to missiles as a result of its horrible experience with Iraq during the 1980-1988 war, so it might launch preemptive strikes to reduce or eliminate the threat, which could lead to Saudi retaliation and ultimately all-out war.


Biden’s chances of convincing the Saudis to reconsider their cooperation with China on ballistic missiles (or with any other country, for that matter that is not part of the Missile Technology Control Regime) are not very good, but he does have important leverage, which is the United States’ indispensable role in the establishment of an integrated air and missile defense architecture in the region.

Without U.S. technology and involvement, a shared early warning system is impossible. This system is most critical because it is the first layer of defense and it can only be administered and deployed by the United States, which would serve as a hub providing data through its satellites to all the shared early warning systems terminals within the participating Gulf Arab states.

This initiative of integrated air and missile defense, lately turned into a bipartisan bill in Congress that seeks more broadly to upgrade defense cooperation between Israel and the Arabs following the Abraham Accords, constitutes a better deterrent against Iran and a real game-changer not just for the Saudis but for all those who are at risk of Iran’s missile and drone attacks, including U.S. personnel stationed in the region.

But for Saudi Arabia to obtain the United States’ comprehensive help on missile defense, it must commit to missile nonproliferation in the interest of regional and international security. That’s the security bargain Biden should be underscoring in his meeting with Saudi leaders.

Riyadh must understand that further cooperation with China on offensive missiles will lead to the loss of full U.S. support on missile defense. This shouldn’t be a difficult choice.

Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute and a former senior advisor in the U.S. Defense Department focusing on security cooperation in the broader Middle East. He is the author of Rebuilding Arab Defense: US Security Cooperation in the Middle East.

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