Saudi Arabia made headlines recently, after it publicly paraded two DF-3s for the first time. The Kingdom secretly purchased these missiles from China in 1987, but has hitherto opted not to show them off in public. The consensus is that the Kingdom’s public display was intended to signal to Washington its current discomfort with the way the US has handled Syria, the Arab Spring, and the Iranian nuclear issue. In addition, the unveiling of the DF-3 also appears aimed at sending a message to Tehran about Riyadh’s capability to strike targets inside the Islamic Republic.

The Saudi decision, while interesting for Riyadhologists, is simply a reminder of the growing prevalence of ballistic and cruise missiles in the region. The concurrent  spread of these two systems will have important implications for Gulfee, Iranian, and US security interests moving forward. The DF-3 parade came on the heels of a missile defense conference in Abu Dhabi. At the conference, Frank Rose, US deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, indicated the United States’ intent to bolster the GCC’s missile defense capabilities. The Gulf States have assiduously worked – with US backing –  to augment their missile defense capabilities since the early 1990s. However, all of the efforts to convince the the GCC to cooperate closely on defense issues have failed.

The development of a regional missile defense system, therefore, is sure to run into problems. Nevertheless, the Gulf States have shown a sustained interest in further developing their anti-missile capabilities. And, as Rose indicated, the US continues to hammer away at the idea of using missile defenses to try and unify the GCC states – good luck.

The Kingdom, for example, first purchased 761 PAC-2 GEMS from the United States in 1992. And in 1993, the Saudis doubled down and ordered another 629 PAC-2s (The systems have since been upgraded). Moreover, in November 2012, Qatar requested “11 Patriot Configuration-3 modernized fire units, 11 AN/MPQ-65 radar sets, 11 AN/MSQ-132 engagement control systems, 30 antenna mast groups, 44 M902 launching stations, and 246 Patriot MIM-104E guidance-enhanced missile-TBM (GEM-T) with canisters.”

Qatar’s request moved in tandem with that of Kuwait’s. In July 2012, the Kuwaitis requested “60 PAC-3 missiles, 4 Patriot radars, 4 engagement control stations, 20 launching stations, 2 information coordination centrals and 10 electric power plants.” The missile defense systems are likely to complement the AN/FPS-132 Block 5 Early Warning Radar, which was deployed in Qatar in 2013, and will cover Iran, as well as provide the U.S. – and Doha – with increased space surveillance capabilities. The tiny Gulf Emirate has also purchased two AN/TPY-2 radars, as part of THAAD batteries. The UAE has also purchased the TPY-2 for its planned THAAD system.

Now, Jeffrey has written about what he calls the Saudi’s strategic dyad. While the long-range ballistic missiles get most of the attention, I think the more important issue vis-a-vis the Kingdom’s missile plans is its interest in precision strike. And, to be frank, I think the Saudis have fallen behind the Emiratis in this regard. The UAE, in my opinion, is a much better model for the future of Gulf defense. (Let the jokes start now about the Saudi Air Force.)

The UAE is working to pair missile defenses with a professional air force that is equipped with precision strike weapons. Thus, like the Saudis, the Emiratis purchased the Storm Shadow cruise missile. In tandem, the Emiratis are investing in drones and satellite reconnaissance.  (To be fair, the Saudis are also interested in drones.) The evidence suggests that the UAE is keen on developing the capability to launch precision strikes against regional targets. And, once the first shot is fired, the UAE appears intent on pairing its offensive capabilities with missile defense.

So, while the Saudis may have the capability to use ballistic missiles, I think the more interesting trend is the growing capability by regional states to use precision strike to hit command and control centers, Iranian mobile ballistic missile launchers, and leadership bunkers. And, should the two sides start shooting at each other, the complete saturation of the region with ballistic missile defenses could help to degrade Iran’s retaliatory capabilities. In other words, the UAE – and to a lesser extent, the other GCC states – are working to pair offensive and defensive missiles.

The Iranians completely understand this new dynamic. In every meeting or conference I have attended with Iranians in recent years, their main complaint is that the United States is unnecessarily militarizing the region. They argue that massive arms sales to the GCC states erodes regional trust and increases tension. (Obviously they leave out the part about the nuclear weapons program.) However, they also note that the best way for them to respond is to increase the capabilities of their ballistic missiles. Absent the capability of its geriatric air force to penetrate Gulfee airspace, Iran has little choice but to increase its reliance on asymmetric tactics. Thus, I suspect that Iran believes that it can simply saturate the GCC’s missile defenses with waves of ballistic missiles. (This is why Iran will never agree to put its missiles on the table during the current P5+1 talks.)

And when Iran does this, the GCC states decide to purchase more missile defenses. Washington appears to have decided that missile defense can be used to reassure the Gulf states about the US commitment to honor their bilateral security obligations, while also helping to protect oil and military facilities in the region. In turn, this suggests a continued build up of offensive and defensive missile systems in the region, as well as a continued US role moving forward. Yet in doing so, Iran will be forced to bolster its ballistic missile capabilities to overcome increased GCC capabilities.

The current dynamics, therefore, suggest that the region is mired in a conventional missile race. Thus, the recent Saudi decision to show off its small missile arsenal may simply be the beginning of what I suspect will be a future filled with many more missile displays in military parades.