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.