In a surprisingly blunt statement, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stated that despite being a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since 1988, Riyadh will develop nuclear weapons if Iran – its biggest rival and viewed by many Saudis as a potentially existential threat – acquires one. In this piece, we examine how the Crown Prince’s comments may be part of a broader strategy than simple hawkish posturing, and how Saudi Arabia likely has a complex nuclear strategy already in place.


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Speaking to a U.S. television network while heading to Washington for the closing leg of his diplomatic tour to the United Kingdom, Egypt and the U.S., the unconventional and reformist Crown Prince stated that Saudi Arabia did not want to acquire nuclear weapons, “but…if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, would follow suit as soon as possible.”

Iran has long been Saudi Arabia’s principle rival in the Gulf region’s battle for hegemony, and in many categories outmatches Riyadh to an uncomfortable degree. While Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth and consequentially vast state budgets have allowed it to acquire cutting edge Western military technology, Iran’s forces are battle hardened from a successful Syrian campaign in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s own languishing expedition into Yemen. Iran’s special forces are considered to be both highly motivated and extremely capable in the asymmetric warfare space, and geography favours Iran over the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in an all-out war. In addition to this, Iran’s population is larger, and its population are frankly more comfortable with hardship after decades of economic isolation, giving the regime in Tehran a greater deal of domestic survivability in the event of a major conflict.

The plant recently featured in (somewhat far-fetched) claims by Houthi rebel forces in Yemen to have been targeted with a domestically-produced Burqan-2 missile.

Despite this, Riyadh has maintained committed to wrestling with Iranian expansionism on all fronts in order to resist what it perceives as a strategic encirclement and a risk to the key economic choke-points of the Bab al Mandab and Strait of Hormuz. Salman spoke of this perception of Iran’s threat in the U.S. interview, saying “[Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei] wants to create his own project in the Middle East, very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realise how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia has not directly pursued nuclear weapons, but is pursuing civilian nuclear energy development with projects planned for the construction of as many as 16 reactors across the country. Close ally and neighbour of the Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, is already finalising construction of the region’s first nuclear reactor at Barakah. The plant recently featured in (somewhat far-fetched) claims by Houthi rebel forces in Yemen to have been targeted with a domestically-produced Burqan-2 missile. The reality is that Houthi missiles are still far too short ranged to reach the Abu Dhabi emirate coastal site of Barakah from even their northernmost territories, and reports suggest that Houthi rocketeers have been stripping warheads from missiles in order to launch them further at a cost to their lethality. Despite this, the threats highlight the security concerns that exist in tandem with critical national infrastructure projects in the turbulent region, and a release of nuclear materials into the Gulf would have devastating consequences for the large local populations dependent on desalinated seawater.

The Barakah site’s construction began following Abu Dhabi’s securing of a “123 agreement” with the United States, named after a clause in Washington’s export-control laws relating to nuclear technologies. This agreement involves the UAE adhering to high-level safeguards and restrictions on uranium enrichment in exchange for access to American nuclear technology, essentially preventing the repurposing of Barakah for arms development.

Saudi Arabia has somewhat different nuclear aspirations, and considers the ability to enrich uranium a “sovereign right”. Washington, however, remains hesitant to grant Saudi Arabia a more favourable deal than the UAE’s “123 agreement”, fearing that other regional powers (including the UAE) would seek similar exceptions of their own. Israel  – the only generally accepted (although perpetually unconfirmed) nuclear power in the Middle East – has also voiced concerns about a possible enrichment exception, fearing that it might provoke a regional arms race. Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5 group, Iran – in stark contrast to the UAE – is allowed to enrich uranium up to a certain level (albeit far below the levels required for weapons production) and still has access to the mothballed centrifuges required for the process. This would allow Iran to restart uranium processing within a short time-frame should the JCPOA deal fall apart. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – to his credit – appears to be working to keep the deal intact despite anti-Iranian rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump’s hawkish White House and a fresh round of sanctions, the strategic imbalance created by this situation understandably makes Riyadh extremely nervous.

If these reports are accurate, then Riyadh already has a hedge to Iranian weapons development in place, and it could be that the Crown Prince’s remarks are intended to test Washington’s attitude towards Saudi reciprocal armament in the event of Iranian reneging on the JCPOA.

Saudi Arabia is rumoured to be heavily invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and sources have suggested that Riyadh could obtain atomic bombs “on order” at short notice if needed. In 2013, former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, made comments that if Iran gained nuclear weapons, “[Saudi] will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.” Riyadh is also believed to hold a stockpile of Chinese CSS-2 ballistic missiles, which are generally considered as too inaccurate for conventional warhead deployment, and in 2013, a new CSS-2 base was constructed in the Kingdom with launch rails aligned on Iran. The infamous Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan was accused of passing blueprints for a warhead engineered to fit on a CSS-2 missile frame to Libya and North Korea, and it is not unthinkable that Saudi Arabia may have access to those same designs.

If these reports are accurate, then Riyadh already has a hedge to Iranian weapons development in place, and it could be that the Crown Prince’s remarks are intended to test Washington’s attitude towards Saudi reciprocal armament in the event of Iranian reneging on the JCPOA.

Despite this, it is possible that the Crown Prince has made these statements as part of a different and less-obvious strategy altogether. In 2017, the Kingdom displayed a surprising willingness to bypass Washington in a key air defence equipment procurement programme, buying Russia’s most advanced air defence system, the S400, as Washington appeared to lag behind in authorising a sale of the U.S.’ advanced THAAD system. The purchase dramatically upset the traditional image of Saudi Arabia as an exclusive NATO client state, and made it clear to Washington that the assertive young Crown Prince would be willing to turn elsewhere to meet its requirements.

From an economic perspective, nuclear power generation makes little sense for Riyadh when significantly cheaper alternatives exist.

Enter Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear power company, which in December signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first reactor at El Dabaa. Jordan also signed a $10bn deal with the Russians for a two unit power plant at Amra in 2015, followed up by a small modular reactor deal last year, making it a highly active player in Middle Eastern nuclear power. It is possible that bin Salman’s comments in the U.S. interview were intended as a reminder to Washington that they aren’t the only vendor in the Middle East when it comes to nuclear technology, and from Washington’s perspective it would be better to be involved in a Saudi reactor project than to see yet another strategic asset snatched up by Russia. The S400 deal demonstrated bin Salman’s assertiveness in deals of this sort, and President Trump’s zero-sum approach to diplomacy would likely recoil at the thought of losing out on a deal to Moscow.

From an economic perspective, nuclear power generation makes little sense for Riyadh when significantly cheaper alternatives exist. Saudi Arabia currently consumes 465,000 barrels of oil per day for electricity generation at an estimated cost of $11bn in foregone annual revenue. Despite this, should their 16-reactor plan commence on schedule, the last reactors will not launch until the 2030s, and even then they will generate less than 20% of the 120 gigawatts needed during national peak energy hours. In addition to this, nuclear power is considered to be a relatively mature source from a cost-per-watt-improvement perspective, and even the most efficient designs remain costly. Compare this with still-falling solar costs, and Riyadh is presented with a potentially-lucrative use of its vast silicon-and-sunshine filled deserts.

While Saudi Arabia does not truly need nuclear technology for civilian power generation purposes, and – if the Pakistan rumours are true – it likely does not need it for weapon development either, Riyadh’s motivations should be questioned to better understand the Crown Prince’s comments. It is possible that the project is seen as a combination of national prestige and keeping pace with Iran. Or it could just be that the Crown Prince wanted to remind Washington of its importance as a regional ally, and that assisting with the project would be a better option than seeing Moscow take the lead.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Mahmood Hosseini/Tasnim News Agency

 

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