The Kingdom and Nuclear Energy: The Proliferation Contingency

By Salman N. Al-Rashid

Matt Reed presents a compelling case for American-Saudi cooperation on the civilian nuclear front. As Reed correctly asserts, the kingdom will eventually develop nuclear technology to satisfy domestic demand for energy. But regional political developments leave the Saudis feeling insecure. I suggest that the kingdom’s contemplating developing nuclear weapons is not outside the realm of possibility.

For reasons beyond the scope of this post, a new regional Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran has emerged. Iran’s potential possession of a nuke would amplify the Iranian threat in Saudi eyes and naturally lead the kingdom to consider developing its own deterrent. Moreover, decaying relations between Riyadh and Washington means that, at least for now, the Saudis might find it difficult to trust the American security umbrella. A nuclear weapon might serve as an attractive option that gives the kingdom agency over its own security.

As a nuclear Iran comes closer to reality, Riyadh’s decision-makers will likely incorporate the conventional wisdom about nuclear states into its thinking about Iran. Already prone to exploit or fuel developments that serve its own strategic purposes, a nuclear Iran would feel invulnerable to attack and thus emboldened in its regional adventurism. According to a February 2008 report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, top Saudi officials believe Iran is pursuing the weapon to “become a regional superpower” and “be a more dominant force in the Gulf” at Saudi Arabia’s expense. Gulf expert Guido Steinberg recently argued that the “main target of [Iran’s] nuclear programme is Saudi Arabia and not Israel.”

Saudi Arabia is more than equipped to engage in limited conventional conflicts that Iran might initiate as a nuclear-armed state. This is largely due to a historic 2010 arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Through the deal, worth nearly $60 billion, the Saudis received advanced aircraft as well as promised upgrades to its naval and missile defenses.

A Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) report downplays Saudi nuclear ambitions, suggesting that Saudi pursuit of a nuclear weapon would compromise this kind of American military support. Moreover, the report argues, pursuing a bomb might invite international condemnation against a Saudi state seeking to bolster foreign direct investment and continued integration into global markets. Why would the kingdom risk American support and its international position in general?

While the risk of losing international support might be a powerful disincentive, the kingdom may no longer believe in the support from its longtime American ally. The arms deal presented a bright spot in the American-Saudi relationship, but the world is fast changing, and relations between Riyadh and Washington have cooled considerably.

Popular convulsions in Egypt led to the undignified exit of Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s staunchest regional ally. Rather than come to Mubarak’s aid, the US stood by as the Egyptian people exercised their popular will. Saudi leaders were appalled. In a startling confirmation and reinforcement of decaying relations, Saudi Arabia did not care to inform American officials of its decision to help Bahrain’s leaders control protests in March.

Tensions appear to continue indefinitely as the Americans and Saudis hold ultimately irreconcilable positions on Bahrain and on political reform in the region more generally. The same NTI report concedes that a “souring of U.S.-Saudi relations, especially when such a scenario is combined with Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal,” might compel Saudi leaders to think about the bomb.

And because the American approach to counter-proliferation in the Middle East is intimately linked to security guarantees, the Saudis might view with deep suspicion any American attempt to slow the proliferation of nuclear know-how in the region According to a report by Joshua Pollack of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the US hinted that it would offer security guarantees and perhaps an extension of the American nuclear umbrella over various states in order to prevent them from independently pursuing fuel-cycle know-how.

That was back in 2009. Washington may have succeeded in convincing the United Arab Emirates to “forswear the acquisition of fuel-cycle technology,” but it might not score that success with a weary Saudi Arabia.

One country yet to be mentioned is Israel. Saudi Arabia does not fear Israeli nukes. Rather, Israel’s opaque nuclear weapons program counteracts any momentum toward a nuclear free Middle East.

In May 2010 NPT members agreed to hold a conference in 2012 aimed at establishing a nuclear-free Middle East. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, along with the US, UK, and Russia, were to choose an individual facilitator for the talks and identify a site for the conference. The NPT has chosen neither a site for these talks nor an individual to moderate them. Many observers confirm that Israel’s nuclear double standard—preventing the proliferation of WMDs in the region all the while possessing a covert nuclear program of its own—is the primary stumbling block to any progress. All the while, political upheaval in the region is forcing Arab leaders to recalibrate all major foreign policy decisions.

The domino effect of nuclear proliferation is a popular theme in nuclear weapons literature. As one state develops nuclear weapons capability, others feel compelled to follow. This theory has often been applied to the Middle East and takes on added significance in the context of current regional developments. Iran’s progressing nuclear program and regional political upheaval, both of which have rattled the kingdom’s perception of its own safety, make for a proliferation perfect storm.

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