Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Missiles: Another Log on the Middle East Fire

<i> Richard B. Straus is the editor of the Middle East Policy Survey. </i>

“The Saudis just can’t leave well enough alone,” said a veteran U.S. Middle East analyst last week. He was responding to reports that Saudi Arabia is now deploying Chinese-made ballistic missiles, adding to the arms buildup in that combustible region.

This analyst, a former senior State Department official, used the same words a few days later when he learned the Saudis had engineered the removal of the U.S. ambassador to their kingdom, Hume A. Horan. The decision to recall Horan, one of the State Department’s star Arabists and a seasoned professional who had held two previous ambassador postings, was made in Washington. But Washington acted only after the Saudis had indicated that they would no longer receive him at the highest levels.

In fact, the last time Horan met with Saudi King Fahd was early last month. Then, acting under instructions, he delivered a stern message expressing the Reagan Administration’s displeasure over the purchase of the Chinese missiles. Some Pentagon officials privately put out the story that Horan had insulted the king with overly harsh language.


But those who know Horan and the story of his recall best insist this was not the case. They say senior U.S. officials were genuinely upset with the Saudis and wanted their distress accurately communicated. Given the strains between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis obviously prefer dealing with Horan’s predecessor, and soon-to-be-replacement, Walter L. Cutler, best known for obsequiousness. “Cutler goes down well with the Saudis and their apologists at the State Department,” said a disgruntled Administration official.

Horan’s problems with Saudi Arabia, however, date back to his posting there some six months ago. The Saudis apparently took offense at Horan’s parentage--his father is Iranian--although no one mentioned this on his appointment and it did not come up during his brief stint as the No. 2 U.S. diplomat there in the 1970s. More important, with his fluent Arabic--among the best at the State Department--Horan was able to go beyond official circles to seek out other influential Saudi opinion. “Horan didn’t play the game the way some high-ranking Saudis liked,” said an Administration official. “He was just too good at his job.”

Despite his talent for getting around, Horan--not to mention the impressive U.S. intelligence contingent in Saudi Arabia--was unable to uncover Saudi preparations for the missiles until it was too late. “It was a genuine intelligence failure,” said one U.S. intelligence officer. “The pieces were there but were never put together,” this official conceded.

According to sources, last summer U.S. intelligence tracked two Chinese freighters heading for the Persian Gulf. One docked in Iran, the other in Saudi Arabia. At the time, the United States was only concerned with the shipment to Iran. “We just didn’t follow up the Chinese ship to Saudi Arabia,” said a U.S. intelligence analyst.

With this sale to Saudi Arabia, China has emerged as the major supplier of ballistic missiles to the Persian Gulf. While the Chinese defend their sale as being one of many by outside countries seeking financial and political gains from the region’s endemic warfare, U.S. officials consider them the most irresponsible. “China imposes no constraints,” said a senior U.S. official.

Ironically, it was by seeking such constraints that the Saudis got their missiles. The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, went to China in 1985 to persuade the Chinese to stop selling arms to Iran. Bandar, the son of the Saudi defense minister and a nephew of the king, is described by Saudi watchers as the nearest thing to a national security adviser the kingdom possesses. (Because he is known to be jealous of his prerogatives, Bandar has been fingered by some U.S. officials as a leading force behind Horan’s removal.) Unable to dissuade the Chinese from continuing arm sales to Iran, Bandar then began his own negotiations.


Another factor in the Saudi decision to seek missiles from China was their inability to obtain desired weapon systems from the United States. This has been true since 1981, when Congress narrowly approved the Reagan Administration’s request for AWACs early-warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

In 1985, after promising to provide the Saudis with new F-15 fighter aircraft, the Administration, confronting congressional and pro-Israeli opposition, was forced to renege. At the same time Iran began using long-range missiles in its war against Iraq. As the State Department’s chief Middle East official, Richard W. Murphy, explains, “They felt naked. They asked us for (weapons) and we were not prepared to sell so they went elsewhere”.

But in seeking protection from Iran, the Saudis may have encouraged another threat--from Israel. Upon hearing of the new Saudi missiles, Yossi Ben-Aharon, a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, responded with a thinly veiled threat. He reminded an Israeli radio audience that in 1981, when Israel felt endangered by Iraq’s missile development program, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq’s partially completed nuclear reactor. “The possibility always exists” that Israel might go after the Saudi missile sites, Ben-Aharon warned.

Although well-placed Israeli military experts admit such an attack is, as one puts it, “operationally feasible,” they say it is not imminent. And the Reagan Administration, after a mild case of the jitters, has also downgraded the threat.

But neither the Administration nor the Israelis discount the cumulative impact of these new and dangerous weapons. “The genie is out of the bottle,” said a senior Administration official. “The region is going ballistic.” U.S. and Israeli officials are even more concerned about the growing use of chemical weapons. For more than three years, Iraq has intermittently used chemical warfare against massed Iranian formations. Now, according to U.S. officials, the Iraqis are using chemical agents almost routinely. And they fear Iran may soon respond in kind.

From Israel’s perspective, it is the mix of ballistic missiles and chemical warfare that conjures up the most frightening scenario. With a densely populated coastline, even the relatively inaccurate Chinese missiles can pose a major danger to Israeli security. Already the Israelis have to contend with such a threat from Syria’s Soviet-supplied missiles. Now Saudi Arabia must be added to the list.

The Israelis expect the next Middle East war to begin as a missile war. This will find Saudi Arabia on the front lines for the first time. So it is not surprising that even those most sympathetic to the Saudis find their recent behavior self-defeating. One U.S. official, speaking of the missile purchase, said, “The Saudis think they are showing independence by joining the missile club. But their claim to legitimacy is as custodians of Islam’s holy places. In a war the Israelis would make a mockery of that claim.” And linking the missile sale with the unprecedented display of arrogance towards the U.S. ambassador, one long-time Saudi watcher declared, “They are being gratuitously self-immolating.”