Will Saudi Arabia make a nuclear bomb? The short and quick answer is ‘no.’ If you want a longer answer, it is still negative, but qualified. Riyadh has not shunned nuclear weapons in principle. In fact, Saudi officials are constantly dropping hints at how they would be forced to pursue a nuclear weapons programme if the nuclear deal presently being negotiated with Iran did not live up to expectations. Riyadh has also been equally clear that it is not happy with the lenient terms the negotiations between the E3+3 and Iran have so far been able to agree upon. Additionally, the traditional bulwark against Iran – Iraq – has not just fallen but appears to be sliding into Qom’s orbit. With the geopolitics of the region changing so drastically and potentially against the House of Saud, what will stay their hand?
A nuclear weapons programme is hard work and not to be taken up lightly. Despite the “democratisation of knowledge” since the early 1940s when scientists working on the Manhattan Project first worked out the schematics of a nuclear weapon, it is still an arduous task to follow in their footsteps. The basic science behind a nuclear device was publically available as early as 1958 when Glenn Seaborg’s The Transuranium Elements became a textbook for nuclear chemistry in universities. Seven years later, the Los Alamos Primer – notes based on Robert Serber’s first five lectures at Los Alamos – was completely declassified. What was pathbreaking research merely 20 years earlier had moved into the average university classroom. However, the engineering remained elusive and later proliferators mastered the precise details only after years of research, trial, and error.
Presently, Saudi Arabia lacks the skilled manpower to pull off a successful nuclear weapons programme and it will take years to develop this talent indigenously. However, the kingdom is embarking on an ambitious nuclear power programme with plans to generate up to 18 GW of electricity via nuclear power by 2030. Such a programme could be used to gather basic experience in reactor operations and the practical elements of nuclear chemistry, metallurgy, and various other related disciplines. Saudi scientists and students will be able to avail of training in foreign universities and nuclear institutes, admittedly geared towards a civilian programmes, and any interest in sensitive topics such as plutonium chemistry in multiplying assemblies will raise flags. In any case, the amount and quality of the plutonium that can be extracted from the spent fuel of commercially available nuclear reactors is not something on which a nuclear arsenal can be based.
To be sure, some of the difficulties with manpower can be addressed the same way Gulf states solve any of their other problems – imports. It will not be difficult for Riyadh to attract a qualified workforce from countries like Pakistan with high salaries and perhaps even promise of citizenship. However, a country’s nuclear weapons programme cannot rely so heavily on foreign labour for obvious strategic reasons. Yet Pakistan may still transfer some technology to speed things along and occasionally point Saudi technicians in the right direction in much the same way the AQ Khan network did in Libya, Iran, and North Korea. This work will have to remain clandestine and completely isolated from Saudi Arabia’s civilian programme, which is difficult to maintain over the time period it would likely take the kingdom to develop a nuclear device.
A greater obstacle than science and engineering in crossing the nuclear Rubicon is access to fissile and other sensitive material. Since India stunned the world in 1974 with its first nuclear test at Pokhran, the nuclear powers have tightened controls on nuclear commerce and implemented a fairly stringent safeguards system. It is much harder to make nuclear weapons on the sly now than it was 40 years ago. An interesting yet tangential anecdote to this point is that the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was livid with Indira Gandhi and India for testing the bomb. He rightly predicted that it would become harder henceforth for anyone else trying to acquire nuclear weapons under the radar. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the protocols with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Furthermore, any nuclear commerce will also have to satisfy bilateral treaty obligations on use and verification. It would be difficult for its scientists and bureaucrats to spirit away the technology, hardware, and fissile material required for a clandestine nuclear weapons project without anyone noticing. Besides the nuclear regime, there will undoubtedly be the unwanted attention of intelligence agencies of rival nations to fend off from such an endeavour.
These hurdles suggest that an indigenous Saudi bomb is unlikely, at least within the next two or three decades. Observers, however, are concerned about another option that may be open to Riyadh that is faster and cheaper: Pakistan. Over the years, the House of Saud has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in financial aid with no strings attached, even saving the Islamic Republic from economic crisis a couple of times. It is strongly believed that Saudi Arabia may have even knowingly funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. The Pakistani army has served the monarchy on several occasions, to quell internal dissidence or to bolster its strength around the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia has developed a close relationship with its generals and officers. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis are employed in the Gulf countries, guest workers who faithfully remit much of their salaries back to their homeland. It would be difficult for Islamabad to deny such a generous patron if it ever comes asking for a favour.
Despite the Saudis silently playing along with the analysts’ notion that they may have access to nuclear weapons via Pakistan, it is highly improbable that this will ever materialise. Its dependence on Riyadh not withstanding, Islamabad was loathe to send troops to the Gulf last month in support of the Saudi invasion of Yemen. Except for a minuscule number who live in a fantasy world where Pakistan is the eastern bulwark of an Arab Islamic empire, the overwhelming majority of Pakistani lawmakers and citizens did not see the point of getting bogged down in an open-ended dispute in a desert far from home. More importantly, Pakistan cannot afford to openly take sides against its western neighbour when its other borders are already problematic. Turning over a fully functional nuclear bomb or five to Riyadh is simply not an option open to Islamabad.
If Pakistan did give Saudi Arabia a small nuclear arsenal, it would invite crippling sanctions against itself and Islamabad can abandon any hope of being accepted in nuclear commerce circles. In fact, such a move by Pakistan would even put immense pressure on China, its only nuclear partner so far, to at least not expand cooperation any further. On the other side of the bargain, Saudi Arabia would also face such sanctions. Its oil will be embargoed and Riyadh’s considerable investments in Western countries will most likely be frozen. Riyadh may be able to weather the repercussions for a few months, maybe even a year, but as a long-term strategy to balancing Iran, it will leave the country significantly weakened and unstable.
These scenarios play out as explained only if the boundary conditions of the problem remain the same. In the past, the United States has been known to look away, perhaps even unofficially help at a lower level, its allies acquire nuclear weapons. However, if Washington tries to shield its Gulf ally from the full consequences of acquiring nuclear weapons on the sly from another of its allies, it runs the risk of the collapse of the NPT. If states that acquire nuclear weapons with impunity are not brought to task simply because they are US allies, what is to prevent other states from trying to cross the nuclear Rubicon themselves? This will not, of course, trigger a nuclear proliferation rush but it will make non-proliferation efforts almost impossible.
A rash decision by Saudi Arabia on the nuclear front would also end its informal security alliance with the United States. If Riyadh were to be attacked, Washington would be under no obligation to come to its rescue. In fact, the United States may even hold up supplies of spares for the equipment it supplied the Saudi army. The loss of implicit US support would be immeasurably geopolitically as well as strategically and something Riyadh may not be willing to surrender. The value of US security guarantees can be seen most clearly in East Asia where they have kept South Korea and Japan from pursuing nuclear weapons of their own. It would be quite myopic of Riyadh to sacrifice that to attain a fledgling nuclear capability.
Saudi officials have told the United States in private at least since 2009 that if Iran goes nuclear, they would have to follow. Since then, such declarations have become more public and strenuous and in all likelihood enjoy public support. Yet the rational money is on the kingdom leveraging its potential nuclear response to Iran for closer security collaboration with the United States. Riyadh fears that the nuclear deal with Iran would remove a difficult thorn in Iran-US relations, open the spigots of trade, and with that will return the camaraderie of the Shahist era. This is not entirely unreasonable but may take much longer than Riyadh fears. As Jawaharlal Nehru realised and his daughter after him, there is something to be gained in maintaining an ambiguous nuclear weapons policy. The House of Saud intends to do just that, extracting the most security cooperation it can from Washington to hold its nuclear ambition in abeyance.
There are quite a few hurdles, most of them serious, on the path to a nuclear arsenal. Yet none of them are insurmountable. Western analysts tend to often look at the world through occidental eyes, downplaying regional security concerns, domestic politics, and the importance la bella figura. As a result, they often underestimate the bloody mindedness of a state that sees itself as pushed into a corner. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, Pakistanis would eat grass if they have to but will acquire a bomb of their own. Ultimately, Pakistanis may not have had to eat grass but according to Sinologists Xue Litai and John Lewis, the Chinese certainly came close to it. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country – if it wants a nuclear bomb, it will get one. Perhaps not in 10 years or even 20 – but there is enough dual use technology out there and there are enough entrepreneurs who are willing to put the right equipment in the right hands for the right sum of money.
It is a myth that the NPT prevented proliferation; the overwhelming number of signatories would not know what to do with a nuclear bomb even if they had one. What has kept genuine proliferation risk countries from embarking on or seeing a nuclear weapons development programme through to completion is their own assessment that such weapons are unnecessary to maintain their security either because of good diplomacy with their neighbours or American extended nuclear deterrence. If forced to, there can be no doubt that Saudi Arabia will cross the nuclear Rubicon. It remains up to the rest of the world to reassure it that there is no need.
This post appeared on FirstPost on June 25, 2015.