Written by Shivani Singh.
Is the threat of a nuclear Saudi Arabia real? This question has been doing the rounds in the foreign policy circles for quite some time now, especially after the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman declared that if the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) falls through and Iran builds nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will follow suit.
The thought of a nuclear Saudi Arabia has indeed raised some concerns. How credible is this threat? Saudi Arabia’s recent strained relations with the US in the backdrop of the Iran nuclear deal, as well as its inherent nuclear capabilities, will decide whether the country may become a nuclear power in the near future.
Emerging security threats
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been marred by conflict, tension and confrontation on account of various geopolitical factors like the proxy war in Yemen, different interpretations of Islam, and relations with western countries including the US. Understandably so, much of Saudi Arabia’s desire to nuclearise is a direct result of its efforts to counterbalance Iran’s influence and curbing it from developing nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has expressed a desire to tighten the deal by introducing stricter regulations on Iran’s uranium enrichment procedures. It expects the US to play a proactive role in keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
reports suggest that Saudi Arabia purchased around 20 CSS-2, intermediate range ballistic missiles from China in 1980s followed by a CSS-5 in 2007, an improvement over CSS-2.
However, the recent trajectory of negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal has been anything but reassuring. Donald Trump threatened to withdraw from the deal by refusing to recertify the sanctions and Iran has contemplated backing out of the agreement. A nuclear and rogue Iran may be in the offing and US failure to contain it can set the perfect stage for Saudi Arabia to take up nukes too.
Despite the security umbrella, the lack of security assurances by the US towards its allies is starting to create a void not only in the Middle East but also amongst the nuclear umbrella states like South Korea and Japan. An example was President Trump’s recent admission of the possibility of Japan and South Korea building their “own nuclear arsenals rather than depend on the American nuclear umbrella for their protection against North Korea and China”. Such statements have cast doubts on the extent that the US is willing to protect Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region against Iran and will surely have a bearing on Saudi Arabia’s calculations.
However, despite the uncertain international security environment, immense Saudi-US dependencies and synergies guide their bilateral relationship. The US accounts for the second largest export ($20.9 billion) and import ($18.8 billion) destination for Saudi Arabia; oil forms a major chunk of the economic dependencies that both countries share. Strategically, Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on the US for arms sales, training and service support. In May last year, President Trump announced defence sales to Riyadh to the tune of $110 billion. Given the deep strategic and economic engagements between the two countries, it is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia would risk its seventy year alliance with one of its most trusted allies.
Additionally, acquiring nuclear weapons would risk breaking the norms built around stigmatisation of nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea are contemporary examples of countries facing ostracism by the international community on account of their allegedly abrasive and irresponsible behaviour concerning nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia seems cognisant of that fact and would want to avoid meeting the same fate as Iran.
Enabling conditions for a successful nuclear weapon programme
Given the perceived security threat Saudi Arabia faces, does it actually possess the capabilities and enabling conditions to facilitate its nuclear weapon programme? Saudi Arabia plans to actively pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes to move away from non-renewable sources of energy. Russia, China, France, South Korea and the U.S have offered to facilitate a civil nuclear energy programme in Saudi Arabia.
Any agreement regarding the export of civil nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia with any of the countries mentioned above would require some minimum standard commitments from Saudi Arabia: non-pursuit of ‘sensitive nuclear technology’ including a restriction on enrichment or reprocessing of uranium and plutonium respectively, above and beyond the percentage required to produce civil nuclear energy; responsibility for exporting the spent fuel from the reactor out of Saudi Arabia, and other such safety norms. However, quoting the Iran nuclear deal as a leeway, it resists restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing to its own fissile material.
Reports suggest evidence of uranium exploration and early mining work in Saudi Arabia in three different sites, namely Al Jalameed, Ghurayyah, and Jabal Sayid, which have natural uranium deposits at 52,000-105,000 metric tons combined, meeting the minimum 10 metric tons of natural uranium that is required to make sufficient weapon grade uranium. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is claimed to have looked to obtain uranium reserves from South Africa.
Saudi Arabia may be allegedly involved in clandestine deals with Pakistan concerning the importation of “sensitive equipment, materials and technology used in enrichment or reprocessing”.
Although Saudi Arabia has a Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, it is still categorised as a SQP (Small Quantities Protocol) country whereby due to its almost negligible nuclear material inventory, it can escape certain reporting responsibilities. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has not signed the Additional Protocol under IAEA, which makes tracing all parts of its nuclear fuel cycle even more difficult.
Pakistan and China: possible nuclear outlets
Saudi Arabia is currently in talks with the US to forge a civil nuclear agreement which would allow the U.S to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. However, the 123 agreement, a pre-requisite and an absolute imperative in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and curbing proliferation, may be a major bone of contention wherein Saudi Arabia refuses to forgo its right to uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing.
Unfortunately, if this deal falls through, Saudi Arabia has other avenues for seeking co-operation in its nuclear energy programme while retaining its right to enrich. It may be allegedly involved in clandestine deals with Pakistan concerning the importation of “sensitive equipment, materials and technology used in enrichment or reprocessing”. This is not unprecedented as the two countries have a history of co-operation with Saudi Arabia known to have financed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and future “unsafeguarded uranium enrichment activities” in exchange for its nuclear assistance.
Regarding technology for the nuclear weapon delivery systems, reports suggest that Saudi Arabia purchased around 20 CSS-2, intermediate range ballistic missiles from China in 1980s followed by a CSS-5 in 2007, an improvement over CSS-2. Although both countries claim these purchases were solely for conventional purposes, these delivery systems can be used for carrying a nuclear warhead.
As of now, Saudi Arabia has very little nuclear infrastructure and know-how to carry out a nuclear weapons programme. There is also no credible evidence to prove Saudi Arabia has or is likely to launch any covert domestic nuclear operation to build a nuclear bomb. Therefore, the possibility of a nuclear Saudi Arabia in the near term is a bit of a stretch.
However, the urge to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, lack of trust in the US security umbrella and provocative public statements by the Saudi Arabian ruling dispensation over its intention to go nuclear serves as a stern systemic reminder that it is important, for strategic stability in the Middle East, to ensure this possibility does not turn into a reality.