Saudi's nuclear ambition faces a blow from newfound ally Israel

  • 21 Feb 2019

Despite the growing Saudi-Israel friendship, Israel came out with a strong criticism against the US government's plan to sell nuclear technology to the Sunni-majority kingdom.

The US President Donald Trump, flanked by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, meets with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. ( Reuters )

Although Saudi Arabia and Israel have been in the news for cosying up in the wake of a resurgent Iran, Tel Aviv dealt Riyadh a diplomatic blow by criticising the US government's plan to sell nuclear technology to the Sunni-majority kingdom. 

Saudi has a long-standing aim to build both energy and military capacity from nuclear technology, and Riyadh has already signed several cooperation agreements with France and China. 

Saudi Arabia and France signed three nuclear-related cooperation agreements in Paris on June 24 2018. One involves carrying out a feasibility survey for the construction of two power reactors in the country and the other two touch upon various logistics.

China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) to develop existing cooperation between the two countries to search for and estimate uranium and thorium resources.

Since 2018, the US administration has shown an interest in helping Saudi realise its nuclear dream by offering knowledge and workforce to the kingdom.

"We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," a senior Saudi diplomat was quoted as saying in The Guardian. 

Israel turned out to be a stumbling block, however, Tel Aviv objected to the US  transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, even though the two countries have forged an alliance of convenience in light of Iran making inroads into Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, using its militias to change power dynamics in the entire Middle East. 

This is not the first time Israel has reacted negatively to Saudi's nuclear ambition. In March 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned US President Donald Trump against selling nuclear reactors to the kingdom. Riyadh had been negotiating the purchase of 17 nuclear reactors with Washington.

Trump reportedly refused to entertain Netanyahu's demand as the president felt that if he didn't move fast enough Saudi could fall into Chinese or Russian hands since both countries have shown a readiness to build Saudi's nuclear projects, according to senior Israeli officials. 

Starting with the Obama presidency, Riyadh and Tel Aviv worked behind the scenes, away from the media glare, to build relations even though they have no formal ties due to the long-standing Palestinian issue.  

Since Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, became Crown Prince in 2017, he has also focused on deepening ties with Israel.

In March 2018, Saudi-led Arab nations attended a meeting over the Gaza Strip, organised by Trump administration, despite the Palestinians boycotting it.

Although Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud slammed Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, MBS chose to remain mostly silent on the issue.

In April last year, MBS also was quoted by US magazine The Atlantic as saying: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”  

Why does Israel object to Saudi’s possession of nuclear energy?

According to a report published by the Jewish Virtual Library, Saudi Arabia is still considered a military threat against Israel.

The Israeli state also has concerns about Saudi Arabia’s growing military power, which is being increasingly augmented with sophisticated weaponry worth tens of billions of dollars.

Saudi Arabia is also in possession of advanced air missile systems, tanks, warplanes, helicopters and gunships.

One of the most sophisticated military powers in the Arab world cannot be dismissed if an anti-Western regime takes over the country, according to the report.

Although the threat perception has reduced through MBS’s engagement with Israel to counter Iranian influence, its newfound ally is unwilling to see the kingdom gravitate towards nuclear technology.