Saudi nuclear enigma

Its has nuclear options. And they are more than just open.

Israel loomed large in Saudi Arabia’s traditional nuclear calculations. But thanks to their security relationship with the United States, Israel’s undeclared but widely acknowledged nuclear weapons capability does not create a pressing need for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear deterrent. The same cannot be said of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s historical, religious-ideological and geopolitical rival.

While it can expect the United States to come to its aid in case of an attack, it is well-known that Saudi Arabia attempted to ‘outsource’ its nuclear deterrent — to Iraq and then to Pakistan, primarily by providing financial assistance to their bomb projects and in Pakistan’s case, also supporting its economy after international sanctions were imposed on Islamabad following its 1998 nuclear tests. In the late-80s Saudi Arabia purchased intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China, which were adapted to carry conventional warheads. It then signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty in 1988, although it has not accepted international inspections (‘safeguards’ in non-proliferation-speak) on its nuclear facilities.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear stance required re-examination after 9/11. Firstly, in order to counter Osama bin Laden’s case, the Saudi monarchy could not be seen as too close and too dependent on the United States for its security. While the broad Saudi-US-Israel security relationship continues to work in practice, politically it became much more of a liability than ever before. Secondly, increased American military presence in Pakistan, Musharraf’s deal with the United States, and more importantly, the investigation of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation activities made it risky for Saudi Arabia to rely on its ‘outsourced’ nuclear weapon. And finally, Iran’s nuclear programme came under the spotlight, causing alarm bells to ring across the Arab world. It has been reported that Saudi Arabia’s strategic review in 2003 outlined three options: develop its own nuclear deterrent, seek protection under someone else’s nuclear umbrella or work towards a nuclear-free Middle East. With the second and third options appearing increasingly untenable, does it follow that Saudi Arabia will consider developing its own nuclear weapons?

It certainly is making noises to the effect. The secretary-general of the Arab League surprised many by calling upon oil-rich Arab countries to develop nuclear technology for civilian use. A Kuwaiti researcher recently suggested that Riyadh is considering a ‘nuclear program’. And in this month’s issue, Cicero, a German magazine carried a report on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme and the help it is receiving from Pakistan. [See a Babelfish translation of Stefan Heidenreich’s blog, linkthanks Swami Iyer]. This could be posturing (for the benefit of Arab audiences), signaling (to dissuade Iran from going nuclear), indication of its nuclear plans or all of the above. It certainly has kept its options open — its facilities are outside international scrutiny, it has not signed the comprehensive test-ban treaty and it has the necessary scientific infrastructure in place.

Despite all this, the decision to ‘launch’ a nuclear weapons programme is by no means straightforward. Saudi Arabia’s beneficial security relationship with the United States — which not only secures the kingdom but also secures the king himself — will come under tremendous stress. There is, in addition, the risk of preventive Israeli strikes, especially if the United States can keep a lid on the Pakistani nuclear angle. Not to speak, of course, of the havoc even the prospect of all this will create on international energy prices. Even China won’t like that. Nevertheless, greater international scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear facilities, Pakistani scientists and ‘cargo traffic’ between the two countries can help prevent nasty surprises.

6 thoughts on “Saudi nuclear enigma”

  1. Nitin, this being an India interest blog, you think it really matters to India if Saudi has nuclear weapons beyound the obvious that the world becomes a more dangerous place with nuclear weapons in more countries?

  2. I think it does matter.

    An overt Saudi nuclear option will provoke greater instability in the energy markets.

    We need to remain abreast of key developments. It is best if the Saudis keep us informed themselves, that way we don’t have to bother with poking around.

  3. Chandra,

    Any arrangement wherein Pakistan will have to share its nuclear weapons is important from a nuclear deterrence point of view.

  4. Saudi Arabia can barely build its own bicycles without foreign aid. Could they really develop a nuke program ? OK, they have all the money in the world, so they could hire experts. But really, have the Saudis ever displayed anything like the technological ability to develop a nuke.

    yet the country swarms with American intelligence and military(if anyone remembers, the US was able to issue warnings about some terror attacks in Riyadh before Saudi Arabia). Hard to run a program without great pressure from the US.

  5. Ved,

    The Saudis have a system of economic planning very similar to (but far more ambitious than) India’s five year plan system. I think they are in the fourth phase of their development and this phase calls upon them to invest heavily in all manner of industrial and technical research. As such they are focussing on the oil related industries, but having an almost infinite supply of money means they can have technology sharing and development agreements with anyone under the sun. It is not implausible for them seek out a codevelopment arrangement with someone like say Pakistan. I suppose it is easier to import equipment to Saudi Arabia and then re-export it to Pakistan than it is to import things to Pakistan itself… there is more to it than just money for the Pakistanis. There is money and then there are things money can’t buy.

    The US may not be in a position to exert any pressure against the Saudi nuclear program. American dependence on Saudi Arabia today is far greater than US dependence on Pakistan in the 80s. The Americans weren’t able to exert pressure on Pakistan to stop developing nuclear weapons or talk China out of supplying Pakistan nuclear toys. American non-proliferation efforts were also unsuccessful at containing the Pakistan-North Korea proliferation axis or even prevent A Q Khan’s activities. Today America despite all its military might – can’t even bring A Q Khan before an international court.

    It is not a good thing to rely on American intelligence to remain ahead of developments in Saudi Arabia. It may be time to talk to the Saudis directly and ask them what they have in mind.

    The Pakistani-Saudi cooperation which Nitin has pointed out is likely to give Saudi Arabia a recessed deterrent of some kind. We need to understand what exactly is Saudi Arabia recessed deterrent at the policy level and what they intend to do with their deterrent in general.

    I agree with the idea that at the present time Saudi Arabia is not capable of fully utilizing the flexibility of a deterrence structure. Their armed forces barely understand tactical concepts, it is difficult to see them managing something as complicated as the strategic deterrence regime. So it is important to explore what exactly Saudi Arabia wants to do with its nukes-that-don’t-exist. I mean find answers to questions like:

    Will Saudi Arabia be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict?

    Will Saudi Arabia use its nukes against Iran?

    Will Saudi Arabia use its nukes against Israel?

    Will it use nukes against non-nuclear states?

    It Iran goes nuclear in a bid to ward off a US invasion will the Saudis follow suit?

    Things like this need answers. The Saudis should understand that now is a good time to talk as we are listening.

  6. I think that soudi arabia should be given the permission and support by the international community to develop nuclear weapons in order to stop the zionist regime of Israel attack it in the very near future because there intention is to devaste the muslim world through the only superpower which is united states. If this occures then at least the soudis can re-taliate with obandons becasue if Israel has 200 nuclear war heads then the Muslims should have at least one third of this in order to distroy israel this is just a werse case scenario.

    Talking reality I think every country on this planet should have nuclear weapons a deterent and then i feel every one would be at peace Thank You

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    however it feels as the world is coming to an end I believe that america should give me place in the underground bunkers so that I can servive

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