Is Saudi Arabia laying the groundwork to go nuclear? The idea that an Iranian nuclear test would force Saudi Arabia and other regional powers to develop their own nuclear programs was one of the most common objections to my argument that an Iranian nuke won’t have much of an impact of Middle East politics. The reasons for skepticism are fairly clear; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have all faced situations in which neighbors have gone nuclear (Turkey twice), and all three have developed means of dealing with the situation that don’t involve building nuclear weapons. Moreover, concern that Iran is building a weapon has existed for some time, and none of the three have thus far taken much in the way of visible steps to developing their own programs. I agree that Saudi Arabia is the most likely proliferant, but it must be noted that the Kingdom is almost uniquely vulnerable to the kinds of sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. It’s possible that the United States would act to protect the Saudis from international opprobrium, but pretty much any scenario in which the Kingdom decides to build a nuke also involves tension between the US and SA, to the extent that the Saudis don’t feel they can rely on US protection. Recall that Israel built a bomb prior to the development of a close security relationship with the United States; all of the more recent proliferants have had serious concerns about the trustworthiness of their great power patrons. In the Saudi case, this means that the cost of developing nukes would be exceedingly high. Guzansky suggests that the Saudis might buy a device off the shelf from Pakistan, which is possible but certainly without precedent.
For the time being, I suspect that Saudi Arabia will keep up a steady stream of hints about a nuclear program while continuing to work on its conventional deterrent capabilities. As with Israel, the political authorities would prefer that the United States simply make the problem go away. If Iran does get a nuke, however, I doubt that the Saudis will dive into a program anytime soon. To the extent that Saudi behavior will change, it’ll probably be in the direction of closer ties with the United States.