Officials believe Saudi Arabia is hiding the extent of its nuclear activities, as reports emerged of joint Chinese-Saudi projects to extract uranium.
US intelligence operatives are reportedly looking into Saudi Arabia’s nuclear activities after revelations emerged that Riyadh was working with China to expand its programme.
Observers in the US have raised concerns that the opaque nature of the Saudi programme could indicate an eventual goal of building a nuclear weapon.
According to a New York Times report, US intelligence officials share at least some of those worries.
The report said analysts were worried that Saudi Arabia is hiding the real extent of its activities and that the uranium being extracted could later be enriched to weapons-grade level.
That said, officials believe it would take years of development before the Saudis had the capacity to produce a weapon.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are also reported to be concerned about Saudi Arabia’s activities, as the country has refused to communicate with the international agency charged with preventing further nuclear proliferation.
Riyadh’s ally and neighbour, the UAE, has also set up the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant, with some analysts questioning why a country that receives so much sunlight would opt for nuclear power over solar.
‘Response to Iran’
In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), vowed that Riyadh would respond if Iran developed a nuclear weapon.
He told CBS News that: “If Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible.”
At that point in time, he was riding a wave of good will among Western officials and leaders, after marketing himself as a reform-minded prince, who was working to end restrictive social conditions in his country.
Opinions have since changed drastically, following the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.
Western and Turkish intelligence agencies believe that MBS directly ordered the murder of the Washington Post columnist.
That episode, compounded by the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has killed more than 100,000 people, and his continued campaign to jail and kidnap activists even after Khashoggi’s death, has earned the de facto Saudi ruler a reputation for ruthlessness and recklessness.
While MBS has critics on both sides of the aisle, the Trump White House has been a firm backer.
That may change if Democrats make gains in 2020, by capturing the White House and the Houses of Congress.
House Intelligence Committee chief, Adam Schiff, has been a critic of US arming of Saudi Arabia, and past help in developing its nuclear programme.
“What is driving this policy of subservience of American national security interests to the interests of Saudi Arabia?” Schiff said in a 2019 statement on US assistance supplied to Riyadh.