Saudi Arabia’s recent signing of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Small Quantities Protocol on June 16, 2005, raises larger issues of possible nuclear ambitions on the Arabian Peninsula. With the cooling off of relations between Riyadh and Washington, and the resultant retreat of U.S. security assurances to the region, it would seem a logical conclusion for the Saudi government to begin to look for other means of self-preservation, especially when faced with two regional nuclear powers: Israel with a rumored 200-plus weapons, and Iran with a nascent program purportedly in development.
The controversy centers on Saudi Arabia’s request to the IAEA to sign the Small Quantities protocol in May, after an internal IAEA document came to light calling for a change in the status of the Protocol over concerns it may pose a proliferation risk. The Protocol allows states considered to be of low risk to opt out of more intensive inspection regimes in return for a declaration of their nuclear activities. In addition, the Protocol allows for the possession of up to 10 tons of natural uranium or 20 tons of depleted uranium, and 2.2 pounds of plutonium without reporting. While it does not appear that Saudi Arabia aspires to develop a domestic weapons grade uranium or plutonium-processing ability, 10 tons of natural uranium is still enough by most standards to produce between one and four nuclear devices (depending on their design). In theory, the Protocol is supposed to allow the IAEA to focus its efforts on other nations viewed as being of higher proliferation risk. Despite strong concerns of IAEA board members, the European Union, the United States and Australia that the Protocol may provide a loophole for would-be proliferators, the IAEA approved Saudi Arabia’s request to join the 75 other nations that are already Protocol signatories. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is exempt from normal UN inspections, effectively ceasing nuclear monitoring there, in exchange for a declaration tantamount to a self-policing agreement.
Although Saudi Arabia is not traditionally considered a regional proliferation threat, the dynamic changes presently taking place in the Middle East necessitate taking a closer look at the motives behind the Saudi request. The timing is particularly suspect, since the validity of the Small Quantities Protocol itself is currently in question by the IAEA. After years of advocating a nuclear-free Middle East, a Saudi request to join the Protocol at this point seems opportunistic considering the circumstances surrounding both the Protocol’s status and Saudi Arabia’s tumultuous nuclear past.
There is a slew of evidence that Saudi Arabia sought to acquire nuclear capabilities as early as 1975 when a nuclear research center at Al-Suleiyel was created. Further evidence points to a transfer of up to $5 billion to Iraq from 1985 until just prior to the first Gulf War in a deal to further the Iraqi nuclear program in exchange for weapons, should the program prove successful. There was apparently also an offer on the table to pay for reconstruction of the Osirak reactor destroyed by Israel, whose covert nuclear capabilities make it a mutual concern of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Lastly, several high-level exchanges between Saudi and Pakistani officials and a general warming of relations between these two countries points to Saudi Arabia not only having the intent, motivation, and impetus to procure nuclear weapons, but now also the means.
Interestingly enough, any nuclear threat Saudi Arabia may face from Iran may actually have been proliferated by those whose nuclear program was also funded by the Saudis and whose help the Saudis are now seeking: Pakistan. After the mid-1994 defection to the United States of a former Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Muhammad Khilewi, thousands of documents were uncovered, some of which hinted at an agreement by which Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s bomb project in exchange for retaliation with these nuclear weapons in the event of nuclear aggression against the Saudis. In 1999, the reciprocity of this nuclear alliance became even more apparent as Saudi Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz visited Pakistan’s Kahuta uranium enrichment plant with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and both were personally briefed by Dr A.Q. Khan. Then, in 2002, a son of Crown Prince Abdullah attended the firing of the Ghauri, Pakistan’s new nuclear-capable medium-range missile. Further attesting to the cordial nature of the alliance, Nawaz Sahrif, the prime minister of Pakistan deposed by Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup, was given amnesty in Saudi Arabia through a deal worked out between Islamabad and Riyadh.
Other evidence for having nuclear intentions stems from Saudi Arabia’s 1988 purchase of between 50 and 60 Chinese CSS-2 missiles. While these missiles are now largely considered obsolete, it is the purchase of a nuclear capable missile with a 3,500 km range and 2,500 kg capacity that is damaging to Saudi claims of innocence. Apparently of concern is the gross inaccuracy of the Chinese missile, rendering it completely ineffective for use with traditional warhead payloads. This points to a possible conclusion that one intended use could be with nuclear warheads, whose destructive radius negates the inherent inaccuracy of the missile. In addition, there has been recent speculation of prospective purchases of more modern Chinese missile systems (such as the CSS-5 and CSS-6) by Saudi Arabia.
The recent decline in U.S.-Saudi relations may be indirectly responsible for increased pressure felt by the Saudis to find alternative security arrangements in the region. With the movement of Central Command to Qatar in 2002, and resultant decline in U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are feeling hard pressed when faced with the geopolitical realities of the Middle East, especially when the recent behavior of Iran is taken into account. The Small Quantities Protocol exempts Saudi Arabia from IAEA inspections at a time of perceived threat to regional stability, and therefore the Protocol may provide ample opportunity for Saudi Arabia to actively consider a nuclear option as a viable alternative or supplement to current security assurances from the West. The Saudis face the possibility of a nuclear armed adversary, Iran, whose Shiite government opposes the Sunni monarchy in place, as well as the Sunni oppression of Shiite groups within Saudi Arabia. The threat of an Iranian nuclear program coming on-line, an already viable Israeli nuclear program, and a decline in relations with the traditional protector of the region may provide Saudi decision-makers with enough incentive to consider procuring non-traditional means to assure their security.