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SAUDI ARABIA: Riyadh upgrades air capabilities amid rising tensions with Iran

June 16, 2010 |  8:27 am

F-15 saudi

Saudi Arabia could bear the brunt of the fallout of a conflict between Israel and Iran if tensions over Tehran's nuclear program come to a head.

This could explain why the oil-rich kingdom, with an eye to Iran, appears to be investing in its air power, while denying reports it gave Israel permission to use its airspace for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

According to media reports, Riyadh is looking to boost its already impressive air capabilities by purchasing more F-15 aircraft and updating the ones it has through a couple of multimillion-dollar contracts with Lockheed Martin Corp. and Goodrich Corp.

In particular, a widely cited article in Jane's Defense Weekly pointed to Saudi concerns about Iran's growing influence in the region and its ambitions to become a nuclear power.

“Any war with Iran will be an air force and missile war, so Saudi Arabia has to enhance its air force's capabilities,” Mustafa Alani, a military analyst based in Dubai, was quoted as telling Jane’s. “Saudi procurement strategies have been focused on acquisition of the most advanced defense technologies so that they can be interoperable with the U.S. and this is the latest evidence of that.”

Although Saudi Arabia has been vocal in its concerns over Iran's nuclear program, it doesn't want to be seen as taking sides either. Earlier this week, Riyadh vehemently denied striking a deal with Israel to allow Israeli planes to use Saudi airspace to bomb sites in Iran, as reported in a vaguely sourced article in the Times of London.

"Saudi Arabia has repeatedly reiterated its clear stance that it will never allow anyone to use its territories or airspace for aggression against another nation," said a statement issued by the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Saudi Arabia already hosts U.S. military installations, and cooperating with Israel would not only invite retaliation from Iran but further undermine Saudi credibility among the Arab public.

The Times of London article claimed an unnamed U.S. defense "source" as saying that the Saudis are willing to look the other way while Israeli bombers passed through their airspace if it means eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat.

“They have already done tests to make sure their own jets aren’t scrambled and no one gets shot down," the source said, according to the newspaper. "This has all been done with the agreement of the [U.S.] State Department.”

The newspaper also pointed out that Israeli planes on such as mission would have to pass over Iraq on their way to Iran, requiring U.S. clearance and possibly that of the Baghdad government as well.

The paper went on to identify supposed targets, including uranium-enrichment facilities in Natanz and Qom, a gas storage development in Isfahan and a heavy-water reactor in Arak. Other possible targets could include a Russian-built light-water reactor at Busher.

Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter jet. Credit: Defense Visual Information Center via Wikimedia Commons