How Long Will Riyadh Wait for Washington?

By Bilal Y. Saab – According to this important April 25 Reuters story, Saudi Arabia expects to finalize its nuclear energy plans this year. In the absence of a non-proliferation, 123 deal between Riyadh and Washington, U.S. companies cannot take over this multi-billion dollar project, possibly missing out on this huge opportunity and leaving it for others (the Koreans?). I see at least two waiting games here – the first, by U.S. firms waiting for the bureaucracy in Washington to approve and ink that 123 deal so they can cash in (not easy at all, this is gonna require a major decision by the U.S. president that will have implications for U.S. non-proliferation policy. Also, expect Congress to be involved too) – the second, by the Saudis, should they come to the conclusion that Washington is either unable or unwilling to endorse this large nuclear project, expect them to knock on other countries’ doors.

The reasons for Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear energy are not unlike those of Kuwait, UAE, and other Arab countries: prestige, economics, and power demands. The Saudis still plan to build their first nuclear plant in 2020. This is all for civilian purposes, of course. But it certainly got me thinking about the Saudis’ overall thinking toward nuclear power. Say the Iran nuclear talks fail and the Iranian centrifuges are still spinning, would Saudi Arabia accelerate its nuclear plans and go for the bomb? It is entirely possible, despite this new, bizarre argument that has surfaced lately undermining the possibility of a nuclear cascade in the Middle East should Iran get the bomb (ok, maybe it will take much more for Egypt, though less so for Turkey, to acquire a nuclear capability, but Saudi Arabia could have an easier road if they play their cards right).

Here is some history on the Saudis’ non-proliferation resume and their nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia, like other Arab countries, is on the record for saying that it is all for a Middle East free of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Saudis signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it two years later in August. They signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in April 1972 and ratified it a month later. They signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993 and ratified it three years later in August. In June 2005, they signed the Small Quantitites Protocol (though did not adopt the amended SQP), which allows states considered to be low risk to “opt out of more intensive inspection regimes in return for a declaration of their nuclear activities.” So with the exception of them not signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the U.S. has yet to ratify), they have a clean non-proliferation sheet. But of course, there have been rumors associated with Saudi Arabia’s nuclear aspirations. For example, in 1994, Mohammad Abdallah al-Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat posted to the U.N., left his post and asked for political asylum in the U.S. He gave several interviews in which he alleged that his country was involved in a number of schemes to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. He also said that in the 1980s, his government aided Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program financially and technologically in return for a share of the program’s product. In addition to this, don’t forget that Saudi Arabia has a pretty cozy relationship with Sunni Pakistan. Speculation over Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation surfaced in 1999 when Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz visited a uranium enrichment plant and ballistic missile production facilities shortly after the Pakistanis conduted nuclear tests. Also who knows how deep the relationship was between A.Q. Khan and the Saudis.

There is no doubt that the Saudis have strong strategic incentives and the money to pursue a nuclear option. Saudi Arabia may be an oil-producing juggernaut with vast financial resources, but it is regionally vulnerable, security wise. Iran has the capability to threaten Saudi national security, meddle in the Kinkdom’s business, and undermine its regional interests (check, check, and check). Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, often feels that it needs a powerful (nuclear) deterrent. The Saudis have a much more modern air force than the Iranians and enjoy a close strategic relationship with the United States, but Iran is more experienced in combat and is skilled in asymmetrical warfare, including terrorism. Furthermore, it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia’s armed forces can counter an all-out (Iranian) assault against their country.

So let’s go back to the initial question. How long will Riyadh wait for Washington to ink a 123 deal? Not sure, but one thing for certain is that Washington will be very busy for the next year or so (presidential election) and as the Reuters story rightly suggests may not get back to the Saudi King before 2014, which, by that time Saudi Arabia may have found another partner. This is not just about U.S. firms and business opportunities, this is about the future of U.S. nonproliferation policy and U.S. policy for Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)