Clear or nuclear: Will Saudi Arabia get the bomb?

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi

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Naser al-Tamimi
Naser al-Tamimi

As the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program worsens, those most likely to be directly affected by an Iranian bomb are showing greater alarm. While the media fixates on Israel and its possible reaction, other regional players have no less at stake.

Despite Riyadh’s long-held advocacy of making the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, there has been much speculation in the past few years about the possibility of its acquiring, or developing, nuclear weapons should Tehran obtain the bomb.

In the words of Saudi King Abdullah: “If Iran developed nuclear weapons (...) everyone in the region would do the same,” a sentiment echoed by Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Why go nuclear?

A major deterioration in U.S.-Saudi relations - especially if Washington fails to stop Tehran’s nuclear program or decides to scale back its military presence in the Middle East due to its recent energy discoveries and/or fiscal constraints - could force Riyadh to reconsider nuclear weapon acquisition to avoid having to face foreign aggression without U.S. security assurances.

The second issue is a mirror image of the first, namely, the concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If Tehran crosses the threshold, this development could increase the pressure on Riyadh to walk in the nuclear path.

If U.S.-Saudi relations should falter, the Chinese would doubtless view it as an opportunity to take a more active role in Saudi affairs

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

In Feb. 2012, a senior Saudi source told The Times: “There is no intention currently to pursue a unilateral military nuclear programme but the dynamics will change immediately if the Iranians develop their own nuclear capability (...) politically, it would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the kingdom.”

A third factor in the Saudi calculus is Israel’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Given Israel’s status as an assumed, but undeclared, nuclear weapons state, the most immediate consequence of Tehran’s crossing the nuclear threshold would be the possibility that Tel Aviv ends the ambiguity about its program and announces that it has nuclear weapons as a form of deterrence against Iran. This in turn will increase the pressure on Riyadh to acquire its own deterrent vis-à-vis Israel as well as Iran.

Perhaps a more critical factor in the nuclear equation is Saudi Arabia’s economic outlook. The country depends almost exclusively on oil export revenues to develop its economy, but the kingdom is an oil-consumer as well as a producer. Burning oil for electricity production currently consumes about a quarter of the crude oil Saudi Arabia produces, which could have very serious implications for the future. In 2012, the country consumed an average of 3.04 million barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency.

Third-party connections

There have been suggestions that, rather than develop an indigenous nuclear program, Saudi Arabia would simply seek to buy nuclear warheads from Pakistan or China. According to a news report, Riyadh is beefing up its military links with Islamabad to counter Tehran’s expansionist plans, either by acquiring atomic weapons from Pakistan or its pledge of nuclear cover, a claim also reported in The Guardian.

Alternatively, Pakistan might offer a deterrent guarantee by deploying its own nuclear weapons, delivery systems and troops on Saudi territory. This arrangement could be particularly appealing to both Riyadh and Islamabad, allowing the Saudis to argue that they are not violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) since the weapons would not be theirs.
A Pakistani presence might also be preferable to a U.S. one, because stationing Muslim forces on Saudi soil would not trigger the kind of opposition that has in the past accompanied the deployment of American troops.

However, a good Pakistani working relationship with Washington is essential. The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 (also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill) authorized a massive increase in U.S. civilian assistance to Islamabad, tripling it to $1.5 billion a year.

Despite tensions between the two states, Pakistan remains keen on developing its relationship with Washington, and the continued proliferation of nuclear technology is unlikely to encourage either economic or military aid.

Indeed, selling complete nuclear weapons would come at a great political cost. Islamabad might forfeit U.S. foreign assistance and drive Washington into closer cooperation with its mortal enemy, India. Providing Riyadh with a Pakistani nuclear umbrella would also increase the likelihood of convergence between New Delhi and Tehran, as both nations might view the move as part of a larger Sunni threat.

Relations with Islamabad

Although relations with Islamabad are improving, the Saudi leadership has no great trust in Pakistan’s intentions. On the contrary, many WikiLeaks documents have revealed Saudi dissatisfaction with Pakistani politicians and policies.

Above all, Indian-Saudi economic relations have improved rapidly in recent years. At present, New Delhi is the fifth-largest trading partner for Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh is the top supplier of oil to India (approximately 700,000 barrels per day).

Saudi Arabia will take into account that India and China will be key markets for its petroleum products during the next two decades. In addition, Saudi nuclear acquisition could prompt a pre-emptive strike by Israel, especially if the sale became known before the weapon was activated.

In theory, the Saudis could pursue a nuclear option with the Chinese, but in the current strategic environment, it is hard to imagine this as a realistic scenario. Beijing and Riyadh have never had close military relations, largely because Washington has provided the Saudis with advanced military equipment, as well as security assurances against international threats, that China cannot provide.

While Beijing and Washington do not see eye to eye on many issues, including the severity of the Iranian threat, it is unlikely that Beijing would jeopardize its political, trade and other relations with Washington over supplying the Saudis with nuclear weapons.

Additionally, China is a member of the NPT system, and thus obliged “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”

Under the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994, Beijing would face revocation of the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement it worked so hard to secure, as well as the possible imposition of economic sanctions, if it were deemed to have “aided or abetted” the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

If U.S.-Saudi relations should falter, the Chinese would doubtless view it as an opportunity to take a more active role in Saudi affairs. However, there is no evidence suggesting that this relationship will sour in the near future; in fact, as shall be seen, it is clearly improving.

Domestic constraints

Technical barriers for entry into the nuclear club are high, and it is difficult for states to completely hide a clandestine military program from foreign intelligence observers. Indeed, many analysts believe that Riyadh’s talk about developing nuclear arms may be more intended to focus Western attention on its concerns about regional risks, than to indicate any kind of definitive action to go nuclear.

It is unlikely that the Saudis would want to proliferate at the present time; doing so would deeply strain the U.S.-Saudi relationship, perhaps to an irrevocable degree. It would also place Riyadh in breach of a memorandum of understanding signed with Washington in 2008, promising U.S. assistance with civil nuclear power on condition that Riyadh not pursue “sensitive nuclear technologies.”

Riyadh’s desire to maintain a strong relationship with Washington, especially in light of the kingdom’s desire to prevent unconventional terrorism within its borders, inhibits any appetite to develop nuclear weapons. There is also strong evidence that Washington is committed to defending Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration authorized, in the last three years, the largest ever arms sales to Riyadh.

Furthermore, the character of the Saudi establishment militates against taking the drastic step of nuclear proliferation. Journalist Richard Nield has noted that Riyadh has committed itself to a major industrialization and economic diversification campaign that will require sustained engagement with the rest of the world. “It’s not rational that they would jeopardize this in favour of a pre-emptive strike against the theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

The same idea is echoed by Kate Amlin, a nuclear analyst at the U.S.-based Monterey Institute of International Studies, who believes that Saudi leaders would not want to incur the political and economic backlash resulting from pursuit of a nuclear arsenal, at a time when they are trying to integrate further into the international economy.

Finally, it would take many years and considerable financial cost for Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. There exists a relatively strong consensus regarding the immature state of the Saudi nuclear technology infrastructure.

The country lacks the human expertise and technical knowledge necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program on its own. It does not operate nuclear power facilities, and its scientists do not have the necessary experience to enrich uranium for reactor fuel, to convert nuclear fuel, or operate reactors in desert conditions.

There have, however, been clear signs recently of the Saudis’ intent to enter the nuclear arena. In June 2010, the kingdom commissioned Finnish management consultancy Poyry to offer a strategy for nuclear and renewable energy use, and to study the economic and technical feasibility of becoming involved in all aspects of the nuclear power chain, including uranium enrichment.

Earlier that year, the Saudi government said it planned to build a new technology centre, the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energies, in Riyadh. Despite this, it will be years before it is developed; some experts estimate that the Saudi nuclear civilian plan might take up to 15 years.

Given that it is the world’s top oil exporter, handling a nuclear Saudi Arabia would be a delicate manner. However, at least for now, the Saudis have no alternative but to rely on a U.S. defence umbrella in the region. Still, it would be contrary to Riyadh’s practice to put all its eggs in one basket.

Thus, the kingdom will work in two parallel routes, strengthening its military, particularly the air force and navy, while aggressively seeking to buy the civil nuclear technology that could in the future provide the technical capacity and human resources for dealing with nuclear weapons. Overall, though not insurmountable, the obstacles to Saudi nuclearization are considerable. Much depends on Tehran’s ambitions, and the West’s determination to stymie them.


Dr. Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? ” He is also a regular contributor to Al Arabiya, with particular research interest in energy politics, the political economy of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at Twitter: @ nasertamimi and email: [email protected]

[An extended version of this article was first published in the Middle East Quarterly.]

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