Beyond the short-term issues - energy prices, oil production – US President Joe Biden's visit to the Gulf, and particularly to Saudi Arabia, aims to sound out the Saudis on a very sensitive subject: its acquisition of Chinese ballistic missiles.
The purchase of Chinese surface-to-surface missiles is nothing but new: in 1988, the DF-3 was acquired (50 units according to U.S intelligence sources), impressive but which has proven to be fully ineffective, then the more sophisticated DF-21A. But the revelation (on December 23, 2021, of Chinese technical assistance for the construction in Saudi Arabia of a production site for a more sophisticated ballistic missile (probably a modified export version of the DF-26) alerted the United States, both in Administration than in Congress.
(It is worth noting that the acquisition by Qatar of the Chinese BP-12A has not been subject of criticisms nor pressure from the U.S Administration, even though Qatar hosts the biggest U.S base and command of the Gulf.)
Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress asked the Biden Administration in separate letters to their bill (Defend act in Senate or H.R 7987 at the House) to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to renounce this cooperation, or count no more on U.S military assistance. The challenge lies in the hands of the Administration but seems an impossible one: even in the best times of U.S-Saudi relations, Saudis bought Chinese missiles; it is therefore not the American disengagement (illustrated by the withdrawal of Patriot batteries in 2021) that can explain the Saudis’ Chinese tropism.
The explanation is, we believe, far deeper: Arabia is convinced that despite all American and now Arab-Israeli-American efforts, a surface-to-air defense, even if it is a necessary shield, is permeable, extremely expensive and increases Saudi dependence on the goodwill of American administrations, more or less friendly – and every day brings confirmation of these three major drawbacks.
Only the possession of offensive missiles would allow Arabia to deter Iran and its numerous proxies from striking Saudi soil and oil.
But this situation is bound to become permanent since Iran has never ceased to consider that its nuclear program and its ballistic program are the two sides of a single coin: deterrence against its enemies. All attempts by Western diplomats to include Iran's missile program in the nuclear negotiations have failed. Teheran strongly believes that if it renounces its nuclear program, it must have a at least on the other hand a dissuasive means of defence: a wide range of missiles which offsets the extreme weaknesses of its armed forces, which have been under embargo since 1979.
Deterring Iran with its own program of conventional surface-to-surface missiles seems rational from a Saudi perspective, but futile from an Iranian one: understanding what really deters the Iranians has proven to be an impossible exercise for all of Tehran's opponents. From the assassination of General Qassim Suleimani in January 2020 during a drone strike to the routine alternative sanctions/lifting of sanctions, including indirect strikes (sabotage of facilities, assassinations of scientists, theft of archives, raids in Syria and Lebanon), Iran has never deviated from its nuclear objective despite the ingenious efficiency of the Mossad and the crushing weight of American containment.
The Saudi aspiration to acquire more powerful missiles could even have the exact opposite effect. In the event of extreme tensions, Iran, extremely sensitive to missiles due to its experience with Iraq during the 1980-1988 war, could launch pre-emptive strikes to reduce or eliminate the threat, which could lead to retaliation, and ultimately to total war: deterrence has little chance of working with Iran, but Saudi wants to use all possible levers.
To reduce Chinese influence on regional games and increase the resistance of the regional shield against Iran, the Biden Administration has an important means of pressure, which is the key-role of the U.S military assets in the establishment of a integrated air and anti-missile defense architecture in the region, the famous MEAD (Middle East Air Defense).
Without U.S assets, a shared early-warning system is impossible: the U.S, acting as a hub providing data via its satellites to all shared early warning system terminals in Arab countries of the Gulf participants, can only be at the very heart of this alliance.
This integrated air and-missile defense initiative, recently transformed into a bipartisan bill in Congress that aims more broadly to improve defense cooperation between Israel and the Arabs following the ‘Abraham Accord’, constitutes in the eyes of the Biden Administration a far better deterrence against Iran and a true game-changer, not only for the Saudis, but for everyone exposed to Iran's missile and drone attacks, including U.S personnel based in the region.
But, in exchange of a comprehensive and regional missile defense assistance from the United States, Saudi Arabia should commit to missile non-proliferation. This is one of the deals that President Biden will offer to Saudi leaders.