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Saudi Nukes?

[ 8 ] December 13, 2011 |

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.

  • Josh G.

    I doubt the Saudis could build a nuclear weapon, even if they tried. They are some of the most incompetent people on the face of the earth, relying on outside contractors. And it’s not an easy thing to build a nuclear program using foreign, hired-gun expertise alone. And that is the only kind of expertise available to them.

  • dG

    I agree with Josh. From my experience, Iranian-trained technical people are miles ahead of anything I’ve seen from Saudi Arabia.

  • Kurzleg

    Setting aside the technical challenges, wouldn’t it be fairly easy for the US to assure SA that SA falls under US protection? I suppose the US doesn’t want to make any unequivocal promises, but given the close relationship between the two countries in recent decades, you’d think general assurances would carry some weight.

    • Ian

      If they wanted to go one step further, there’s always nuclear sharing. It’s not an arrangement the US has ever made with a non-NATO country, but I suspect it has played an important role in nuclear non-proliferation. It’s likely a major reason why Germany and Turkey never felt the need to start up their own nuclear weapons programs.

      Nuclear sharing has the advantage that it would give the Saudis a deterrent against the largely imaginary Iranian threat while not giving them the ability to attack Israel. That’s not to mention the fact that lending them subtly defective bombs would probably be deterrent enough. Crazy, but then so is lending nukes to half a dozen other countries and the US has been doing that for decades.

      Definition of nuclear sharing: “nuclear weapons stored in non-nuclear countries…guarded by U.S. soldiers…the codes required for detonating them are under American control. In case of war, the weapons are to be mounted on the participating countries’ warplanes.”

  • mpowell

    This is extremely implausible to me. First, what Josh says. But second, a nuclear SA is almost certainly worse off than the current SA. Right now they enjoy the unquestioned support of the US military. It doesn’t really get any better than that and I don’t see any reason to anticipate a change.

  • Arcinian

    Why is it never an option to make our military aid contingent on making violence and abuse against women illegal?

    • witless chum

      Specifically, it’s because no U.S. politician ever got run out of office for not stopping the Saudis from abusing half their population (honestly, they don’t treat the men great either. And foreign workers in the kingdom don’t have a great deal).

      But they might get run out of office if the price of gas goes up too much.

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