In pursuit of the bomb: Is Saudi Arabia playing the nuclear game?

In pursuit of the bomb: Is Saudi Arabia playing the nuclear game?


14 | 12 | 2023


It holds ample economic and natural resources, multiple international partnerships, and a definite willingness to achieve nuclear capabilities

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [House of Saud]

The Middle East has long been a region prone to conflict, with disputes ranging from oil extraction to religious differences. However, despite all the conflicts in the region being waged using conventional means, the threat of nuclear weapons looms large. Rumours regarding the possession of nuclear weapons, or the development of them, have abounded for decades, especially with regards to Israel, widely considered to have nuclear weapons, and the status of the Iranian nuclear programme. Despite these fears and indications of a desire to acquire nuclear capabilities dating back at least two decades, Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s leading powers, has nonetheless not figured in the debate.

The question of Saudi Arabia’s nuclearisation received some attention in 2018, after fears over Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities, and more recently, following two announcements. Firstly, a rapprochement attempt between Israel and Saudi Arabia, mediated by the United States, in exchange for aid in nuclear enrichment programmes; and secondly, the revelation that Saudi Arabia would build a new nuclear power plant. The increasing likelihood that Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear capabilities, whether through a deal with the United States and Israel or an alternative agreement with China, would certainly destabilise the Middle East and ensure the start of a regional arms race.

Ambiguous facts and uncertain intentions

The Saudi government has been rumoured to be in the process of becoming a nuclear-capable state since at least the early 2000s, when reports emerged stating that the government reached a secret agreement with the nuclear-armed state of Pakistan. In more recent times, Saudi Arabia has acknowledged the existence of one small nuclear research unit near the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (Riyadh) and announced plans to develop additional nuclear plants. Indeed, such preparations are underway in the Eastern Province, a project for which several countries, including China, have already started placing bids.

According to the Saudi Arabian government, all nuclearisation efforts are for civilian purposes, with the country at the forefront of nuclear energy development. While this is true, the push by Saudi Arabia to create nuclear capabilities seems suspicious considering that it holds some of the largest oil deposits in the world, meaning that energy supplies are both abundant and secure. However, any posturing must be interpreted considering public statements made by Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. In 2018 and more recently, in 2023, Bin Salman stated that should Iran gain a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would attempt to do the same.

By attempting to reassure neighbours and partners, Saudi Arabia is acting in the same way as other nations that started nuclear programmes, at least in principle, for civilian purposes and ended up employing nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The government has gone to some lengths to argue that any nuclear programme would reduce reliance on oil extraction and other non-renewable energy sources. Indeed, the theory that climate diversification is the driver of this shift loses its credence when one considers that Mohammed Bin Salman has twice publicly stated that the main aim of such a programme would be to counteract Teheran.

Longstanding hostilities with Iran and regional leverages

The possibility of Saudi Arabia becoming a nuclear power cannot be extricated from the nation’s fears about Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite sanctions by the international community, Iran has developed a programme which may be close to producing military nuclear capabilities of its own.

Fears of such an event, with the implication of a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, to a certain extent, died down with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), whereby Iran agreed to comply with international supervision of its programme. This agreement was rendered useless in 2018 when the United States withdrew from the deal, culminating in sanctions being reimposed and Iran no longer complying with the treaty’s terms.

It was within this context that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman first announced that Saudi Arabia would develop its nuclear capabilities, understood as the ability to gain a nuclear weapon if Iran acquired the same capability. Shortly afterwards, in 2019, Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor was unveiled by satellite images.

The question of further steps in the quest for nuclearisation remained purely within the realm of domestic policy until 2023, when the terms for a possible Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal were unveiled. In exchange for normalisation with Israel, the country wanted to both expand its self-proclaimed civilian nuclear programme and build a uranium enrichment plant. The US-brokered deal offered technical assistance in the development of nuclear plants for civilian purposes in exchange for Saudi recognition of Israel.

In spite of public posturing, the civilian aims of such a programme are disputed, and it is most likely an attempt to both assuage US fears of a nuclear arms race within the Middle East and enhance Saudi Arabia’s status as a responsible power broker in a region critical of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main counterweight, cannot open itself up to the same criticism Iran is under, as such behaviour would strain its ties with neighbours. This, in turn, would open an opportunity for Iran to resume its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, leaving a timeframe within which Saudi Arabia would be simultaneously under diplomatic stress and lacking the technical capabilities to immediately develop a large-scale nuclear programme.

The importance of this technical assistance cannot be understated, as Saudi Arabia’s technological know-how is limited to the small nuclear facility in Riyadh. Considering the recent discovery of some limited uranium resources within Saudi territory, which are usable as fuel for a nuclear weapon, and the ample economic resources the country could invest in such a project, it becomes evident that Saudi Arabia has both the means and the willingness to become a nuclear state.

The potential role of China: Beyond an economic association?

Israeli retaliation in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s attack on the 7th of October has put the US-brokered deal on pause, but other paths to nuclearisation exist. While the Israeli normalisation deal was the most straightforward road to this goal, it is imperative not to forget that other countries, such as China, would also be willing to aid Saudi Arabia in developing their capabilities.

There has been a deepening of ties between Saudi Arabia and China, manifested through diplomatic contacts between these two nations, agreements to increase crude oil exports to China starting in 2024, and a currency swap. The recent deal between the countries to establish a currency swap is of special significance, as it would allow China and Saudi Arabia to trade without employing the dollar or any other reserve currency. This evasion of third-nation’s currencies may prove especially useless should the need to avoid sanctions on oil arise, as may well be the case if Saudi Arabia, like Iran, comes under international opprobrium for establishing a military nuclear programme.

Chinese companies have signed contracts to extract uranium reserves within Saudi Arabia, and have further placed bids to build a new nuclear reactor near the Saudi-Qatari border. When taken in conjunction, the deepening ties between Saudi Arabia and China raise the possibility of Saudi Arabia asking China, a nation with nuclear expertise, for assistance in furthering their nuclearisation programme. In essence, should the United States be unwilling to help, as may be the case now that Saudi-Israeli normalisation seems unlikely, Saudi Arabia would nonetheless have a path towards nuclearisation, which begs the question of what such a development would mean for the Middle East.

Predicting a bright future for an empowered Saudi Arabia

The Hamas attack on Israel and this country’s subsequent ground invasion have led to a halt in the process of normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, meaning that collaboration on nuclearisation efforts now seems unlikely. However, this temporary pause does not in any way mean that a Saudi nuclear programme will become impossible. While Iran, as Hamas’ main backer, has gained time by delaying the Saudi programme, Saudi determination to gain the weapon has not disappeared.

Saudi Arabia is in a strong position to achieve such nuclearisation, as it holds ample economic and natural resources, multiple international partnerships, and a definite willingness to achieve nuclear capabilities. While the effect such a development will have on the Middle East is unknown, it will likely escalate tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two leading players in a region where proliferation is increasingly probable.