Is Saudi Arabia The World’s Next Nuclear Headache?

Is Saudi Arabia The World’s Next Nuclear Headache?
Alexei Druzhinin via Getty Images

As the world assesses whether the Trump-Kim show was an empty gesture for the cameras, or the start of a substantial process, we can be sure this is not the last proliferation crisis the world will have to deal with.

As a new BICOM research paper highlights, a proliferation risk likely to creep up the international agenda in the coming years is Saudi Arabia.

Its young and energetic Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has been grabbing headlines with his global charm offensive and his epic ambition to transform the ultra-conservative kingdom. The overwhelming priority is economic. Despite having 20 per cent of proven global oil supplies, it can no longer sustain its rapidly growing population on this wealth, which accounts for around 70 per cent of government revenue. The Kingdom must create new jobs, implement taxation and cut handouts. It must also create new opportunities for its large youth population, with 32% of under-24s unemployed.

But there is also a strong foreign policy dimension to MBS’s agenda. US retrenchment and growing regional threats have prompted Saudi self-assertion, especially to contain the influence of Iran, which MBS compares with Nazi Germany.

This includes a recent explicit commitment from the Crown Prince that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Is that really likely? Certainly the Iranian nuclear threat has not gone away. Even if Iran remains in the framework of the agreement which the Trump administration recently abandoned, restrictions on its nuclear capabilities will begin to ‘sunset’ in 2024. By 2031 Iran will be permitted to stockpile as much enriched uranium as it likes. As Israel’s recent intelligence haul revealed, Iran is well advanced with technologies to turn that uranium into a warhead, meaning it will become a nuclear threshold state, able to construct a bomb within weeks or even days.

The Saudis are generally reckoned to have two possible routes to a bomb. Saudi aid helped fund the Pakistani nuclear program and it has long been speculated that they have secret deal to acquire nukes from Pakistan should they require them. Whilst the wholesale transfer of weapons is considered unlikely, the transfer of sensitive technologies or materials is a very realistic concern.

More recently Saudi Arabia has announced its intention to develop nuclear technology in house, including fuel technologies that could ultimately be used for a bomb. It is in the process of tendering for the first of 16 power reactors, has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, and begun negotiations with the US on a nuclear technology agreement.

The Trump administration has not clarified whether they will insist the Saudis refrain from sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities. Trump officials have told US lawmakers if the US does not sign an agreement, the Russians and Chinese will step in. The Saudis will argue that they should not be denied the right to enrich, that Iran was granted by the JCPOA after years of lies about its nuclear program.

A home grown Saudi nuclear program would take years to develop, but the Iranian and North Korean experience could suggest to the kingdom that playing the long and patient nuclear game can bear fruit in the end. They are not the only Middle East power who could join the nuclear arms race. Egypt – though currently preoccupied with domestic turmoil – has signed a deal for Russia to build a nuclear power plant, and in the past asserted its own right to enrich. Turkey and the UAE are also states to watch, according to leading proliferation experts.

But only the Saudis have declared explicitly their intention to match the Iranians. MBS, aged just 32, is thinking long term about his county’s future and barring an unforeseen event, is set to lead Saudi Arabia for many decades to come. He has impressed interlocutors as being both charismatic and visionary, but has also show himself rash and unpredictable, both in domestic and international arenas.

Several recent policies: military intervention in Yemen; attempting to force the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister; and leading a boycott against Qatar, have raised concerns in Western capitals about his judgement.

The possibility of a Saudi nuclear program will be of concern not least to near neighbour Israel. Saudi interests have converged with Israel’s and cooperation is increasing in the face of the threats from Iran and its proxies, as well as Sunni Jihadists. But without progress on the Palestinian issue, security cooperation will remain informal and covert. Israel is unlikely to defer from its long commitment to prevent any of its regional neighbours acquiring nuclear weapons.

Britain and its allies should therefore be concerned not only about the deficiencies in the JCPOA, but about Saudi commitment to match Iran’s capabilities, especially if those capabilities eventually come to match those of North Korea.

Dr Toby Greene is a Senior Research Associate at BICOM and an Israel Institute Post- Doctoral Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University.

BICOM’s latest research paper Transform or bust? Implications of the Saudi revolution can be read here.

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