Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of Saudi Arabia

By Bahgat, Gawdat | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of Saudi Arabia


Bahgat, Gawdat, The Middle East Journal


Since the 1970s, the world's attention has focused on nuclear proliferation in Iran and Iraq. Very little attention has been given to nuclear proliferation in the third regional power in the Persian Gulf- Saudi Arabia. This article addresses the question of potential Saudi nuclear ambition. Most policymakers and analysts agree that Saudi Arabia does not possess nuclear weapons. Still, some argue that the Kingdom has both strategic incentives and financial resources to pursue a nuclear program. This article examines the security threats to Saudi Arabia from Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Yemen. It also analyzes the impact of domestic economic and political reform on Riyadh's security policy. The article argues that the US' strong commitments to defend Saudi Arabia against external threats have been crucial in reducing incentives to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran and Iraq have dominated analysis of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East since the 1970s. The Shah initiated a nuclear program with some ambiguity regarding his intention (i.e., peaceful purposes or military capability). After some hesitation, the Islamic regime in Iran has reactivated and expanded the nuclear infrastructure and since the first part of this decade, Tehran has been under intense international scrutiny - particularly from the United States, European Union (EU), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - to become more transparent. In neighboring Iraq, former President Saddam Husayn sought to acquire nuclear capability in the late 1970s, but Israel destroyed his nuclear infrastructure in 1981. A decade later, the Gulf War (1991) and the comprehensive sanctions (1991-2003) foiled Husayn's nuclear ambitions.

Very little attention has been given to nuclear proliferation in the third regional power in the Persian Gulf - Saudi Arabia. Does Saudi Arabia seek nuclear weapons capability? This question has not been adequately addressed. Most policymakers and analysts agree that the Kingdom does not have a nuclear weapons program.1 Saudi officials' strong condemnations of nuclear weapons and assertions that their country has no desire to acquire them have further reinforced this consensus. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, like other Arab countries and Iran, has called for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone.2

Despite the fact that no evidence points to Saudi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, some analysts argue that the Kingdom has both the strategic incentive and the financial capability to pursue a nuclear option.3 Saudi Arabia is an important player in the volatile Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East and powerful neighbors have the capability to threaten Saudi national security. In short, Saudi Arabia is rich and vulnerable. Under these circumstances, nuclear weapons would deter aggression and provide Riyadh with a retaliatory capability if this aggression ultimately materializes.

Many analysts have sought to explain why some nations choose to go nuclear, but it is also important to examine why certain nations choose not to.4 Above all, it is easier to explain why something happened than why it did not happen. This article will discuss the different allegations that Saudi Arabia has sought to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The following section will focus on the security environment, particularly the perceived threats from Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Then, the decades-long unofficial alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States will be analyzed. Finally, the potential impact of domestic economic and political reforms on the Kingdom's strategic posture will be examined.

This article's analysis of Saudi Arabia's security environment is twofold. First, political and military developments in Iraq since the Gulf War (1991) and particularly in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Husayn's regime (2003), have abolished the traditional security paradigm (i.e., playing Iran and Iraq against each other). …

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