China transfers drone technology to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s key science and technology organisation has confirmed that one of the deals sealed during Saudi King Salman’s visit to China was an agreement to set up the first factory for Chinese aerial drones in Saudi Kingdom.

King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) had signed a partnership agreement with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which makes China’s CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

China and Saudi Arabia signed US$65 billion worth of deals in ­energy, culture, education and technology during the king’s visit in the middle of this month. China and Saudi Arabia sign agreement involving transfer of nuclear, ballistic missile and drone manufacturing capabilities in Saudi Arabia.

A Chinese military website and military experts said Saudi Technology Development and Investment Company (TAQNIA) had signed a protocol with China’s Aerospace Long-March International Trade (ALIT) for the drone production line at the biennial International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in February.

TAQNIA is a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, while ALIT is a Chinese export-import company that specializes in aerospace technologies.

Zhou Chenming, who previously worked for CASC’s drone-development subsidiary, said the CH-4 factory in Saudi Arabia, only the third in the world outside China, following ones in Pakistan and Myanmar, would also assemble associated equipment, which would improve after-sales services for clients in the Middle East.

The CH-4 has reconnaissance and combat functions and CASC has promoted the drone’s counter-terrorism capabilities when marketing it in the Middle East and North Africa. The drone, already being used by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and some other countries, fires AR-1 missiles that can hit a distant target with a margin of error of less than 1.5 metres.

A report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in February said Iraq had imported 56 per cent of its arms from the United States over the past five years. However, Iraq’s defence ministry said in a report it had opted for the CH-4 over the US Predator because it was cheaper. A CH-4 drone costs US$4 million, while the US Air Force website says a package including four MQ-1 Predators and a ground control station costs US$20 million.

The SIPRI report showed that arms imports by states in the Middle East had risen 86 per cent in the past five years and accounted for 29 per cent of global imports, with Saudi Arabia being the world’s second-largest arms importer after India.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the CH-4 drone project was probably offered as an additional deal after one for China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” ballistic missile, which Saudi Arabia bought in 2014.

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Beijing sold more than three dozen of its then-advanced, nuclear-capable, intermediate-range DF-3A ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988 at a cost of US$3.5 billion – an amount more than half China’s defence budget that year. The deal also caused the oil-rich kingdom to cut-off diplomatic ties with self-ruled Taiwan and formally recognize Beijing in 1990.

Zhou said China had exported the Wing Long, a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, to Saudi Arabia in 2014, but that drone had not performed well in the Arabian desert.

“The CH-4 has recorded outstanding performance in anti-terrorist attacks in Iraq, Yemen, as well as in Africa’s Sudan, Ethiopia and China’s neighbouring Pakistan,” he said. “That’s why our Saudi friends are so interested in the drone cooperation project.”

A Wing Long II UAV at the Zhuhai air show last year. Photo: Dickson Lee
A Wing Long II UAV at the Zhuhai air show last year. Photo: Dickson Lee

Professor Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said low oil prices had led to some oil-exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq, using cheaper Chinese weapons.

Holslag said the US remained dominant in military hardware sales but former US president Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the Middle East and the election of his isolationist successor Donald Trump had led many countries in the region to question America’s reliability as an arms exporter.

Zhou said the drone factory deal was just “small business” in the US$65 billion of deals signed during the king’s visit. China and Saudi Arabia defense deals worth more than US$28 billion.

”The real aims behind the deals are an oil-hungry China being able to get more oil from the kingdom to sustain its domestic economic development, and Saudi Arabia improving its infrastructure with China’s technological aid.”

When President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh in January last year the two countries promised to form a comprehensive strategic partnership and boost industrial cooperation in line with Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” trade and infrastructure scheme.

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