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'Alarm bells': Saudi Arabia's nuclear ambitions cast shadow over the region

Analysts fear Riyadh is seeking to develop the technical capabilities that would allow it to quickly pursue nuclear weapons
Trump's actions have raised doubts about Washington's resolve, or even its ability, to keep possible Saudi nuclear ambitions in check (Reuters)

In sharp contrast to Iran, its revolutionary identity and revisionist tendencies, Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a proponent of the prevailing order and status-quo balance of power in the Middle East.

This seems to be changing under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who continues to receive extraordinary support from US President Donald Trump's administration. 

Whether it is an attempt to revise the status quo in favour of Riyadh, or prevent it from being revised by others, Saudi Arabia's nuclear and missile programmes are bound to have significant regional implications. 

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Earlier this month, Tim Kaine, Democratic senator from Virginia, revealed that the Trump administration had approved the transfer of nuclear know-how to Saudi Arabia seven times, including twice after the murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in early October 2018. 

One of the transfers was authorised on 18 October, only 16 days after Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was brutally eliminated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to the US senator.

"The Trump administration is seeking to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement that would allow Saudi Arabia to use US technology for energy purposes, but not nuclear weapons," Nicholas L Miller, professor of government at Dartmouth College, told Middle East Eye. 

"There is a concern in the administration that if the Saudis don't choose the United States as their supplier, they will turn to South Korea, Russia, or China, who tend to have weaker nonproliferation controls in their agreements," said Miller, the author of, Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of US Nonproliferation Policy.

Yet Trump's transactional and profit-centred approach to foreign policy-making - which arguably prompted his landmark 20 November statement of almost unqualified support for the Saudi leadership amid the Khashoggi fallout - and the secrecy with which US nuclear technology transfers to Riyadh are taking place, have raised doubts about the US resolve, or even ability, to keep possible Saudi nuclear ambitions in check. 

Trump's 'secret' approval

In late March, the Reuters news agency disclosed the Trump administration's "secret" approval of licences for six US firms to sell atomic power technology to Riyadh. 

Simultaneously, the Saudis are seeking to develop a ballistic missile programme of their own, apparently with Chinese assistance. 

In November 2018, satellite imagery taken by the US company Planet Labs showed what appeared to be rocket engine tests for ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons at a military base near the town of al-Dawadmi, about 230km west of Riyadh. 

Saudi Arabia is gradually diversifying its alliances by fostering closer ties with Russia and China

Several months later, in an exclusive report published on 5 June, CNN cited US intelligence sources as claiming that Riyadh had significantly advanced the missile programme with the help of China. 

Interestingly, the discovery infuriated Democratic lawmakers as the White House had "deliberately" refrained from sharing its knowledge of the high-stakes development with key members of Congress until they found out about it "outside of regular US government channels".
"Saudi Arabia's development of ballistic missiles goes against long-standing US policy of opposing missile proliferation in the region," said Miller.

"But the Trump administration has so far been relatively quiet about its response.

"There seems to be a pattern in this administration of looking the other way at provocative Saudi behaviour due to the laser-like focus on Iran."

'Reckless leadership in Riyadh'

Combined with bin Salman's warnings that the kingdom would pursue atomic weapons if its chief nemesis Iran did, these concurrent and mostly clandestine missile and nuclear activities are sounding alarm bells in certain capitals in the region, not least Tehran.
"A nuclear Saudi Arabia means nuclear proliferation in the most unstable and volatile region of the world," Ali Bakeer, a Turkey-based political analyst told MEE. 

"Given the reckless leadership in Riyadh, this is an alarming development for small states in the Gulf in particular, which might either seek a nuclear umbrella from great powers or consider constructing parallel deterrence capabilities of their own if they could afford it."

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Notably, before imposing an all-out diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, according to US officials, was devising a military plan to invade the small nation and seize its North Dome gas field.

It is the world's largest gas field, and adjacent to the Iranian South Pars field. The capture would have made Riyadh the second-biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world overnight.
The harshest reactions have, however, come from Tehran. 

In his Persian New Year address on 21 March, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened that if the Saudis build a nuclear capability with US assistance, "it will fall into the hands of Islamic combatants in the not-so-distant era". 

This seems to suggest that Tehran might bolster support for Yemen's Houthi rebels if tensions and hostilities escalate or Riyadh adopts a game-changing policy to tilt the regional balance of power in its favour. 

Shortly afterwards, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, warned that the Islamic Republic might be forced to modify its defence posture and national security strategy in response to "suspicious nuclear projects" in the region. 

"New threats like this will force us to revise our strategy based on the nature and geography of such threats, and predict the requirements of our country and armed forces," he said.

Inspection regime no longer adequate

While Saudi Arabia, a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is nearing completion of its first atomic reactor in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology near Riyadh, it has so far resisted calls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IEA) to implement proportionate safeguards and an inspection regime that would preclude possible deviation towards weaponisation.  

"Saudi Arabia is currently subject to less intrusive monitoring by international inspectors because Riyadh concluded what is known as a small quantities protocol with the agency," Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at Arms Control Association, told MEE.

Saudi Arabia ... has threatened to pursue nuclear weapons in the past

- Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association

"The small quantities protocol was designed to simplify safeguards for states with minimal or no nuclear material, but it is no longer adequate for Saudi Arabia's expanding nuclear programme."

Tytti Erasto, a researcher with the Nuclear Disarmament Programme of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, concurs. 

"In theory, Saudis abide by the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement [CSA] but in practice, it is not applied," he told MEE. 

"This is because the so-called small quantities protocol [SQP] - which exempts Riyadh from inspections - has been applied in the Saudi case, based on the assumption that its nuclear activities are minimal. 

"However, this is changing due to Saudi Arabia's plans to expand its nuclear programme. 

"In light of this, as well as repeated statements giving rise to proliferation concerns - for example regarding the Saudi intention to match any Iranian nuclear capability - the application of SQP is increasingly questionable, and there's an urgent need to put CSA verification standards into action."

Rapid population growth

Rapid Saudi population growth, from 20 million in 2000 to 34 million in 2019, and the consequent increase in demand for energy consumption, understandably make civilian nuclear power an attractive option to meet domestic needs. 

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Energy demand in the kingdom is growing by eight to ten percent per year, which it is estimated requires a boost of 80 gigawatts in energy generation by 2040. 

With that in mind, the Saudis established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) in April 2010 to reduce reliance on fossil energy and produce desalinated water in the long haul. 

Almost five years later, in January 2015, Riyadh announced an updated target of 17 gigawatts of nuclear power that would account for 15 percent of the demand.

Yet "Saudi Arabia is reluctant to forswear fissile material production, has yet to agree to more intrusive international monitoring and verification mechanisms, has threatened to pursue nuclear weapons in the past, and is building up its ballistic missile programme," said Davenport.

"Given these factors, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned that Saudi Arabia is seeking to develop the technical capabilities that would allow Riyadh to quickly pursue nuclear weapons if the political decision were made to do so." 

'Nuclear hedging'

Indignant at the Western backlash over the Khashoggi murder, bin Salman has already started putting Saudi Arabia's strategic eggs, so to speak, in more than just the West's basket.

The kingdom is gradually diversifying its alliances by fostering closer ties with Russia and China. 

In fact, the crown prince seems to be taking advantage of the threat of cooperation with rival powers to further long-term Saudi interests as he sees fit. 

This does not bode well for the prospects of nonproliferation in the Middle East.
A crucial measure to prevent Saudi Arabia from "nuclear hedging," according to Davenport, is for "all states" to make future nuclear and missile cooperation with Riyadh "conditional" on its implementation of strident IAEA safeguards - such as those required by the "Model Additional Protocol to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement" in the words of Erasto - and verifiable abstinence from weaponisation-oriented activities.  
"States must also make clear to Saudi Arabia that the international community will not tolerate any deviation from a peaceful nuclear programme, including rhetorical threats to pursue nuclear weapons, and that any such actions will trigger consequences, such as sanctions," said Davenport.

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