China will construct a new facility to produce unmanned aerial vehicles in Saudi Arabia, following a recent visit from Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman.
The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s national center for all things science and tech, signed a partnership with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. on March 16th. The new facility is part of a $65 billion deal signed between the Saudi monarch and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing to promote stronger ties between the two nations.
CASC produces China’s CH-4 UAV, a drone similar to the U.S. Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. Saudi Arabia, which already operates CH-4 drones, has expressed a desire to grow its fleet. In addition to expanding the Saudi fleet, the new facility can operate as a hub for manufacturing and servicing for other CH-4 operators in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
The CH-4 can carry AR-1 missiles, capable of hitting soldiers, tanks and small boats within 1.5 meters of the target. The Saudi facility will be CASC’s third CH-4 factory outside of China, with facilities in Pakistan and Myanmar.
In 2014, a deal fell through between the two nations when the kingdom sought China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” ballistic missile.
“The DF-21 deal was turned down as a result of strong opposition in the international community amid the Iran nuclear crisis in the region,” Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong told the South China Morning Post. “Beijing may want to use the CH-4 drone as a substitute project in a bid to please an old friend.”
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.
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.
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.”
Zhou said the drone factory deal was just “small business” in the US$65 billion of deals signed during the king’s visit.
”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.”