No to atomic weapons in Saudi Arabia and beyond

Saudi Arabia’s growing stature on the international stage has come with critical responsibilities to safeguard itself and others for mutual benefit

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

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Saudi Arabia’s growing stature on the international stage has come with critical responsibilities to safeguard itself and others for mutual benefit, including the vital issue of working toward regional and global nuclear non-proliferation.

The kingdom, and fellow Gulf states, therefore have a vested interest in the details of the nuclear draft agreement currently on the table between Iran and the P5+1 nations that would likely be finalized by June 30.

Saudi Arabia has been increasingly alarmed by the inflammatory rhetoric and expansionist policies of Iran

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

Saudi Arabia has been increasingly alarmed by the inflammatory rhetoric and expansionist policies of Iran, particularly since it shares a maritime border with the country. It is for this reason that Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the nation’s ambassador in the United Kingdom, articulated the view of all Gulf nations by saying that “all options are on the table.”

Contradictory positions

The position of the United States is contradictory. While Washington has sought to reassure Saudi Arabia that it would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, it has at the same time warned the kingdom not to embark on doing so.

Indian-American writer Fareed Zakaria recently wrote an article in the Washington Post mocking Saudi Arabia, saying that if the Kingdom had not been able to produce a car, how can it develop sophisticated nuclear weapons.

Zakaria wrote that Saudi Arabia’s manufacturing sector currently makes up 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while oil revenue is about 45 percent of GDP, and almost 90 percent of the government’s revenue.

For such a renowned and influential writer, with a weekly program on CNN, Zakaria’s ignorance of the nuclear industry and Saudi Arabia is astonishing, to say the least. He seems blissfully unaware of how these weapons are manufactured and the Kingdom’s status in the region and globally.

The kingdom is the largest economy in the region, recently ranking fourth in the world according to the macroeconomic environment index issued by the World Economic Forum, and third place globally in terms of tax collection, according to the Ease of Doing Business report of the World Bank. The kingdom is a G20 member, making it an important driver of the world economy.

This is not to say that Saudi Arabia does not have its faults and has not failed in some areas. Far from it, the country has recognized its shortcomings and there is currently healthy debate raging domestically on how to solve these issues. This is normal for all countries.

Zakaria’s rather elementary mistake is that he has equated Saudi Arabia’s apparent manufacturing and education deficiencies on one hand with the ability to produce nuclear weapons on the other.

He thus concludes that the kingdom does not have the expertise to develop the bomb. He writes: “So let me make a prediction: Whatever happens with Iran’s nuclear program, 10 years from now Saudi Arabia won’t have nuclear weapons. Because it can’t.”

The paucity of his argument is clear, particularly since he has failed to explain how countries such as Pakistan and South Korea, not known for their technological prowess, were able to develop nuclear weapons.

The technique itself is not an issue, because the technology is no longer a secret. For example, Iraq was very close to developing a nuclear weapon 34 years ago if it was not for Israel’s proactive destruction of its nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Iran is facing a global campaign led by the world’s most powerful nations because they know it has the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

American political analyst Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center in California, wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine on June 13 rubbishing Zakaria’s argument.

He said that Zakaria still imagines that the process is as complicated as it was in 1945. He described the argument as flimsy, misleading and based on false conclusions. He said Zakaria has demonstrated his ignorance of how nuclear bombs are manufactured.

In addition, Zakaria appears to be unaware that Saudi Arabia set up the King Abdullah Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy in 2013 and drafted a national strategy to find alternative and renewable sources of energy. Its nuclear energy plan is premised on using it for peaceful purposes.

Far from backward

Also, Saudi Arabia, far from the backward and uneducated nation he purports it to be, has about 250,000 students studying at some of the world’s leading universities in the United States, Europe and the Far East. It is the largest spender in the region on education and training.

So for Saudi Arabia the issue is not about the capability to produce a weapon of mass destruction. The Kingdom has made it abundantly clear that it has purposely chosen a policy of nuclear non-proliferation. It does not want to start an arms race in the region.

Saudi Arabia, contrary to what Zakaria believes, has far more important developmental priorities than these weapons. It has said so for years, and categorically stated that it is opposed to nations with neo-imperialist designs from having this capability.

It is these concerns that Gulf nation leaders spelled out recently at the Camp David summit with President Barack Obama, to have a future free of weapons that can lead to the destruction of this planet.

This article was first published in Arab News on June 17, 2015.


Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992. You can follow him on Twitter here: @mfalharth

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