US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) is pictured near a Patriot missile battery as he visits the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia on February 20, 2020. Photo: AFP

A new US military pullback from Saudi Arabia threatens a new arms race in the Middle East at a time when the region, struggling with the devastating public health and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, can least afford it.

The drawdown involves removing two Patriot anti-missile systems sent to the kingdom last year to bolster its defenses in the wake of alleged Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

The Pentagon determined that the threat from the Islamic Republic had decreased, officials said last week.

Despite a seemingly reassuring phone call between Saudi King Salman and President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia is likely to see the move as further evidence that it cannot rely on the United States for its defense.

The withdrawal notably comes on the heels of the launch of Iran’s first military reconnaissance satellite.

That advance appears to have not only catapulted the Islamic Republic into an elite group of about a dozen countries capable of orbital launches, but also signaled its capabilities despite crippling US economic sanctions and a public healthcare crisis.

The satellite will play a role in “providing strategic assistance to the armed forces in identification, communication, and navigation missions,” said Iranian General Ali Jafarabadi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ space division.

Iran hawks in the United States and Israel worry that the satellite will enhance the Islamic republic’s ballistic missile capability, a pillar of its defense strategy, as well as the ability of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite militia in Lebanon, to convert its rocket and GPS-guided weapons stockpile into smart munitions.

Going nuclear

The risk of an arms race was explicit in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 warning that “without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

That statement came as the Trump administration was preparing to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear accord.

Iran is since believed to have cut in half the time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade fuel to build a nuclear weapon.

Talks of US aid for a Saudi civil nuclear program have meanwhile stalled, due to reluctance on the part of the kingdom to agree to enrichment and reprocessing restrictions, according to a report last week by the US Government Accountability Office.

The report found Riyadh has also rejected signing an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would allow the IAEA to obtain expanded information about Saudi nuclear activities and grant it access to facilities.

Nationalizing Saudi defense

The development of a local defense industry is a pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed’s troubled Vision 2030 plan.

That blueprint, designed to streamline and diversify the Saudi economy, has been thrown into doubt by the global economic depression.

The kingdom this week tripled its sales taxes from five to 15% and suspended cost-of-living allowances for government employees to cope with a fiscal crunch.

Anthony Cordesman, a Washington-based Gulf military analyst at CSIS, warned on Wedesnday that the Saudi plan to build a defense industry was not the best way to diversify the kingdom’s economy.

There is “virtually no way to waste money more effectively than trying to create an effective technology base or fund a weapons assembly effort in an area of industry and technology,” he said in a paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CSIS receives significant funding from US defense companies Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

A local Saudi defense industry will provide relatively few jobs for the input required, argued Cordesman.

Moreover, “Saudi Arabia would likely be unable to compete in selling these weapons on the international market.”

Iran’s satellite launch is the latest building block in an arms race that Iran, and to a lesser extent UAE, is ironically better placed than Saudi Arabia to compete in given its already existing defense industry and more diversified industrial base.

Ballistic missiles and drones are other building blocks.

With Chinese help

Satellite images revealed last year that Saudi Arabia had a facility deep in the desert designed to test and possibly manufacture ballistic missiles.

Those arms would potentially be capable of delivering nuclear warheads to targets thousands of kilometers from their launch point.

The facility is believed to be intended to counter Iran’s more advanced ballistic missile program.

The kingdom is similarly set to begin next year producing military drones that would match Iran’s bomb-carrying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that reportedly have a range of 1,500 kilometers.

China agreed in 2017 to build a facility in Saudi Arabia to produce UAVs, the People’s Republic’s first overseas military manufacturing site.

“The Middle East has become a drone warfare theater,” said Alessandro Arduino, a drone warfare researcher at Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

“Their deployment has ushered in a new era of post-coronavirus deterrence and turned conventional military doctrine on its head. From Yemen to Libya and Syria, warring parties resist calls for a truce, emboldened by the role of armed UAVs.”

A turn to drone warfare may also come down to cost.

The Saudi and Iranian economies are being battered by a far-reaching global depression, a collapse of oil prices, a health pandemic, and in the case of Iran, US sanctions.

Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.