Saudi Arabia-China Ballistic Missile Deal 'Deeply Alarming,' Senator Says

A reported deal between Saudi Arabia and China to help the former develop its ballistic missile arsenal could spark a new arms race in the region, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has warned.

CNN reported on Thursday that U.S. intelligence officials believe Riyadh—thanks to help from Beijing—is working to produce its own ballistic missiles, where in the past it had only been importing them from foreign buyers.

Several officials at multiple agencies, including the White House's National Security Council, have reportedly been briefed on the significant transfer of ballistic missile technology from China to Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday, Markey—a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and its subcommittee dealing with the Middle East—responded, making clear his concern.

"Reports that China is aiding Saudi Arabia's ballistic missile program are deeply alarming, but not surprising," Markey wrote on on Twitter, urging his colleagues to act.

"Congress must pass my Saudi WMD Act to prevent an illicit Saudi weapons program which could spark an arms race in that region."

The lawmaker was referring to the Stopping Activities Underpinning Development in Weapons of Mass Destruction Act that Markey reintroduced in April along with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Ted Lieu (D-CA).

The legislation "aims to restore oversight and take steps to impede access to sensitive technologies that could pave the way to Saudi Arabia acquiring a nuclear weapon."

The tense geopolitical situation in the Middle East—much of it now split into two blocs led by Iran on one side, and the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli partnership on the other—is driving a new arms race.

Iran's proxy forces in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon are armed and funded by Tehran, which is also pressing ahead with its own ballistic missile development despite international protests.

Iran has been expanding its nuclear program since former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal in 2018—with the backing of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

With JCPOA revival talks at an impasse, it is unclear whether the international community will be able to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons; or at least reaching a point where it can do so within a matter of weeks.

U.S. and European leaders have long sought to fold Iran's ballistic missile program into any future nuclear restrictions. Tehran has repeatedly rebuffed such suggestions. Reports that Saudi Arabia is now working on its own indigenous ballistic arsenal will likely make Iran cling even tighter to its own.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned in 2018 that Riyadh would seek parity if Iran develops nuclear weapons. "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," the Saudi heir told CBS.

Xi Jinping and King Salman in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands with Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on March 16, 2017 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images