Revelations of the Trump administration’s attempt to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia are part of a broader pattern.
Last week the US Congress House Oversight and Reform Committee released a new report alleging that members of the Trump administration sought to expedite the transfer of American nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, a possibly illegal move.
The recent revelations bring up the question of why Saudi Arabia wanted this nuclear technology in the first place, and does the Kingdom have the intention to develop this infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons?
Under King Abdallah, it appeared that Saudi Arabia would not establish a civilian nuclear program, with the possibility of developing nuclear weapons program, due to two factors: American pressure and Saudi Arabia’s integration in the world economy. However, under Crown Prince Salman the pursuit of a Saudi bomb seems more of a possibility.
The American role
To analyse whether Saudi Arabia would pursue nuclear weapons, it is necessary to examine why the Kingdom did not seek these weapons in the past.
When international attention focused on Iran’s nuclear facilities in early 2003, analyses emerged proposing that the Islamic Republic’s program would spark a regional nuclear arms race, with an underlying assumption that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear arsenal to deter Iran.
However, even though Saudi Arabia had the financial means to acquire nuclear weapons back then, it lacked the domestic physical resources and scientific infrastructure to develop such a program. Furthermore, it is a signatory to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), albeit due to pressure from Washington.
In 1998 Saudi Arabia had purchased between 40 and 60 CSS-2 missiles from China when its request for a ballistic missile purchase from the United States had been rejected. A stern American backlash pressured the Saudis to sign and ratify the Nonproliferation Treaty, with personal assurances from the king that Riyadh would not seek nuclear or chemical warheads for the missiles.
This precedent had informed Saudi decision-making since then, with the assumption that the same American stance would dissuade Riyadh from pursuing nuclear weapons in the future.
The economic factor
In the past, Saudi Arabia has cultivated extensive economic relations with nearly every major world power, including the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Germany and France. Acquiring nuclear weapons would have brought a volatile element into the equation that would be unattractive to the foreign investors that drove this growth.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are rentier states dependent on oil revenues from a global market, however, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has not developed the self-sufficiency of the Islamic Republic, which endured sanctions since the 1979 Revolution.
Furthermore, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guards found ways to benefit under sanctions, allowing it to dominate Iran’s economy, Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite has always had a vested interest in international trade.
Both of these factors tilted decisively in the direction of Saudi nuclear restraint under the previous King Abdullah.
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia constituted a far safer and more robust deterrent to external aggression than nuclear weapons ever could, and a budding Saudi nuclear program would only have threatened the Kingdom’s scrupulously internationalised economy and its hard-won reputation for stability and pragmatism.
The Mohammed bin Salman effect
What changed after the death of King Abdallah in 2015 was the accession of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, as well the signing of the Iran deal, signalling a US modus vivendi with Iran under the Obama administration.
The pragmatism that characterised King Abdallah’s regional policy has now been overturned, evident with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, the embargo of Qatar, and the intensification of the regional cold war with Iran.
In regards to the nuclear weapons, in March 2018 the Crown Prince declared publicly in a CBS TV interview that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear bomb if Iran does. In November 2018 he announced a project to build the first nuclear research reactor in the kingdom.
Revelations in January of a missile-making facility in Saudi Arabia served as evidence of a critical first step if Saudi Arabia sought nuclear weapons, giving Riyadh the capability to manufacture a long-range delivery system for nuclear warheads.
The January revelations were followed this month by the US congressional report that officials were involved in transferring nuclear technology to Riyadh, including General Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser before being fired in February 2017, and Thomas Barrack, the chairman of Trump’s inauguration committee.
The aforementioned events could all be part of a process to develop an infrastructure short of actually obtaining nuclear weapons, a means of a latent deterrent against Iran.
While Trump has turned a blind eye to Saudi digressions, with his officials even expediting the transfer of nuclear technology to Riyadh, the crown prince has no guarantees that a future US president will do the same.
Nonetheless, more than any time in Saudi Arabia’s recent history, signs indicate that Riyadh seeks to be the first Arab power to produce nuclear weapons, achieving a goal that alluded Syria and Saddam’s Iraq in the past.
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