Under what circumstances might Riyadh conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces?
SINCE THE TRUMP Trump administration’s May 2017 decision to terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, many have speculated that the Islamic Republic of Iran will soon resume its nuclear weapons program in response to renewed U.S. unilateral financial and economic sanctions. Even so, the current conventional wisdom is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—enjoying Washington’s fulsome political and military support for its regional strategic objectives—will have little interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
But what if that assumption is wrong? Under what circumstances might Saudi Arabia, currently being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces? In the following pages, I outline how such a scenario would unfold and detail how governments would likely respond to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.
IT HAS been a basic U.S. assumption since the mid-1960s that powerful geostrategic friends and allies can be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons so long as they feel secure as the result of an explicit or implicit U.S. extended deterrent against their enemies. The credibility of that commitment depends on both U.S. military forces serving as an instrument of credible extended deterrence and the political, economic and military support to the state in question. Although there has been no formal alliance between them, Washington and Riyadh have maintained a robust strategic partnership since the end of World War II. This partnership is based upon U.S. and European dependence on the free flow of petroleum out the Persian Gulf region at non-inflationary prices, along with Saudi Arabia’s relative military inability to fully provide for its own national defense. Even though the Trump administration has taken an enhanced stance to shore up this partnership via substantial arms sales and a tough geostrategic posture toward Iran, MbS may still opt to pursue other options to enhance his country’s national posture. This could occur due to the financial squeeze on the Saudi economy, faltering internal reform, a sense of regional encirclement by Iran, and an unwillingness of the United States and Israel to take decisive military action against Tehran.
From Riyadh’s perspective, the regional geostrategic environment has deteriorated dramatically in recent years, with Tehran making strategic advances amidst the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This has generated some anxiety over the prospect of Tehran, or a Shia-dominated Baghdad, stirring up significant domestic unrest in Shia-majority Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Recently, it seemed that the Syrian Civil War was headed toward a near-total victory by the Assad regime, despite continued U.S. military and political support for the quasi-independent state of Rojava in eastern Syria. This past winter, U.S. president Donald Trump decided to pull out the approximately two thousand troops located in eastern Syria, thereby cementing the Assad regime’s victory. That decision was partially reversed: a smaller U.S. presence, along with a French and British contingent, still remains. This continued military assistance to the Syrian Kurds and their local Syrian Arab allies ensures the de facto partition of Syria approximately along the Euphrates River.
This prospect of a nearly complete Assad regime victory has greatly alarmed Riyadh’s ally of convenience, Israel. Jerusalem is now worried that Tehran will establish a quasi-state entity in southern Syria akin to the militant and militarily-competent Hezbollah that is now entrenched in Lebanon. Of great concern is the prospect that Tehran will succeed in deploying precision-guided rockets and mobile short-range ballistic missiles to menace Israel’s military facilities and critical civilian infrastructure. The possibility has greatly heightened the likelihood that Jerusalem will launch a massive air and ground campaign into southern Syria with or without the tacit acquiescence of Assad’s other major ally, the Russian Federation. Such a preventive intervention might spiral out of control and devolve into a full-scale regional war, with sustained Israeli air and missile strikes against strategic targets inside Iran.
Riyadh, in turn, might help Israel by opening an air corridor over northern Saudi Arabia to facilitate Israeli airstrikes. Tehran would likely then retaliate against Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council states that help Israel in this regard, striking back via strategic cyberattacks or by long-range precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles. A conflict of this scale would greatly destabilize the global oil and gas markets, prompting the United States, the European Union (EU), China, Japan, South Korea and India to try to end the conflict as soon as possible. Washington’s role in this conflict would likely be decisive in either encouraging further military escalation or peacefully resolving the conflict. Given the presence and prominence of various Iran hawks in the senior levels of the Trump administration, it is plausible that Washington views any regional war between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia as an opportunity to inflict severe damage on the regime in Tehran’s energy and military-industrial capacity—and thereby its capacity to govern domestically and project power in the Persian Gulf.
It is worth noting that this scenario is far from impossible: the prospect of direct military conflict between the United States and Iran has risen substantially over the past year, as Tehran has attempted to drive up the price of oil and natural gas through a series of semi-clandestine attacks on a number of petroleum tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The United States, in turn, has sent ground, air and naval reinforcements to the region to deter further Iranian military action and signal that it is prepared for outright retaliation for the same. This scenario nearly came to pass during this early summer, when President Trump seriously considered but rejected a “kinetic” military response to the Iranian shoot down of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk reconnaissance drone flying over the Gulf of Oman. Even more dramatic and destabilizing was the Iranian precision drone/cruise missile attack on key oil production facilities during the late summer that was followed by no immediate Saudi and/or U.S. military response. A future escalation towards outright war remains well within the realm of possibility.
To the disappointment of Riyadh, a decisive military showdown between Washington/Jerusalem and Tehran as described above may not occur. The prospect of a significant increase in the price of oil following a major armed clash in the region would likely stay the hand of the Trump administration. After all, given that the current state of the world economy is burdened with the prospect of an escalating U.S.-China trade war, a spike in oil and gas prices might very well trigger a dramatic global economic slowdown, if not an outright recession. Washington may instead conclude that financial and trade pressures on the EU, Japan and China to renew harsh economic sanctions against Iran is the most optimal course of action. Yet implementing this approach takes time and does little to curb Iran’s expanding influence in Yemen and Iraq. The realization that Washington cannot be fully relied upon to restrain Tehran’s advances, even with a friendly administration in the White House, might prove to be a tipping point for MbS and his allies in Riyadh—if the United States cannot deter Iran, then Saudi Arabia must find its own means to do so.
BEYOND INTERNATIONAL considerations, domestic factors may also push MbS and his allies to pursue a nuclear arsenal. Riyadh recognizes that the nation’s economy is dependent on oil and fears that the emergence of a “peak oil demand” situation within the next decade will leave the Kingdom without economic recourse. Thus, MbS has launched a major effort to move the Saudi economy away from being primarily an exporter of oil and gas to a producer of advanced, twenty-first-century technological, industrial and agricultural products. To help stimulate this economic transformation, MbS has also set out to modernize the Kingdom’s political and economic system of Saudi patronage and conservative religious rule. But while this agenda may have Saudi Arabia’s best interests in mind, it also overturns the country’s political culture and presents MbS and his allies with an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate power. Naturally, domestic opposition has risen up and is keen to criticize the prince when possible. The prince is staking his present and future reign on the implementation of his reform program, and that success will either placate or silence his critics over the long term.
Unfortunately for MbS, top-down reform efforts are fraught with risk, and the early results from his campaign are not promising. For example, the plan to sell shares of the country’s state-owned oil company (Saudi Aramco) on the global market to generate more than 100 billion dollars of income remains a complex and much delayed initial public offering. That delay is prompted in part by the vulnerability of Aramco’s key infrastructure to future precision missile attacks by Iran. In the near-term, Riyadh has opted to go into greater international debt by issuing a new round of bonds, using the assets of Saudi Aramco as collateral. On a related note, the Kingdom’s expensive economic transformation means that there is a need to more carefully manage the costs of the country’s military buildup, perhaps even making some budget cuts. Instead, Riyadh has seen fit to continue purchasing hundreds of advanced fighter bombers that are likely to remain on the flight line due to a lack of trained and competent Saudi pilots
Lastly, the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi badly damaged MbS’ reputation as a competent and farsighted leader with an ambitious but plausible agenda of political and economic reform. In the eyes of his critics, both international and domestic, the killing and the carelessness with which it was executed reinforced the notion that MbS is not too different from his predecessors. So bad was the fallout that the U.S. Congress tried to use the incident to take a hardline stance and block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. To the most cynical of realists, the Khashoggi incident appears to have satisfied Talleyrand’s much-quoted phrase, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
Critics at home have taken notice of this apparent inability to produce results. MbS and his domestic allies, now on the defensive, may conclude that the rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would be the most effective way of transforming Saudi Arabia’s current circumstances. A similar rationale was employed by Charles de Gaulle during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In de Gaulle’s view, France should acquire the bomb on the basis that it resided in what was then a dangerous neighborhood; could not afford a large, technologically-advanced, combined-arms force; and could not afford to trust others (namely, the United States) to provide a reliable extended deterrent. De Gaulle was further motivated by the idea of enhancing France’s international prestige and that of her armed forces. Pakistan’s national security elite employed a similar logic behind their own decision to develop a nuclear deterrent in the late 1990s.
ALTHOUGH NORTH Korea might at some future date be prepared to sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia for the right price, it is much more likely that Pakistan would be the source of Saudi Arabia’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability. At this point in time, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government face a full-blown balance of payments crisis precipitated by the previous administration of Nawaz Sharif. Seeking to elevate Pakistan’s economic profile, Sharif “bet the farm” on a massive injection of Chinese capital to rapidly modernize Pakistan’s transportation and energy production infrastructures under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Hopes for rapid success have come up short though, due to corruption, internal resistance from within the key province of Balochistan and the rising interest costs of acquiring Chinese debt.
Currently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are negotiating a five-year, $6–11 billion financial assistance package for Pakistan. More recently, during a summit in Islamabad with Pakistan’s political and military leadership, MbS concluded $20 billion worth of investments in Pakistan’s energy and minerals sectors. Despite these new investments though, the Khan administration is hard-pressed for cash. It has had to negotiate for another financial bailout by the International Monetary Fund to the tune of $6 billion at the cost of limiting economic sovereignty. Yet even that isn’t enough to pay down the current crisis.
The Khan administration and its military allies, therefore, will soon search for an additional source of loans from the international community. Might there not be an opportunity for a much more massive cash injection if Pakistan could provide MbS with a nearly instant operational nuclear arsenal? In fact, is it not possible that this very idea was considered and discussed in secret during the Islamabad summit?
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have an enduring security relationship that goes back decades. Examples include Pakistani military training provided for the Saudi National Guard, or when Islamabad dispatched a battalion-sized security force to Saudi Arabia to help pacify the domestic turmoil unleashed by the 1979 militant attacks on Mecca. There have also been reports that it was Saudi Arabia that provided Pakistan with the financial assistance necessary for the latter to develop its nuclear weapons program. That Riyadh might turn to Islamabad for assistance in acquiring the bomb is actually rather plausible.
Moreover, public reports over the past several years suggest that China has provided Saudi Arabia with a new generation of rapid reaction, solid-propellant intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the DF-21, to replace the obsolete liquid-propellant Chinese IRBMs, the CSS-2s. Currently, the Royal Saudi Strategic Rocket Force (RSSRF) relies on China to provide precision-guided warheads to supplement the Saudi air force’s ability to reliably conduct long-range offensive operations and present a viable military threat to Tehran. Although it had a longer range, the CSS-2 relied on an early generation inertial guidance package, resulting in the missile being, at best, a “city-busting” terror weapon. In contrast, the DF-21, armed with a modern and accurate variant of a Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle, can accurately strike key strategic targets—to substantial military and economic effect.
One of the practical legacies of the original Chinese missile transfer is the set of hardened launch sites at Al-Watah, Al-Jufayr and Al-Sulayyil to the south and west of Riyadh. With these, the personnel of the RSSRF can now train with the ground-mobile DF-21 to become combat-ready. It is important to note that, to date, there is no evidence that the RSSRF has launched any of its DF-21s, much less its older CC-2s, in a lofted trajectory as part of an operational exercise similar to the tests carried out by North Korea during 2017—tests which caused an uproar within the Trump administration and with the international community. The RSSRF has so far only conducted training simulations. These are useful but are not a substitute for actual live-fire training. With nuclear warheads, there is the potential to radically transform this nascent long-range missile capability.
THE CURRENT Saudi regime could secretly negotiate with the Khan administration and the Pakistani high command to rapidly acquire operational nuclear warheads for either the Chinese DF-21 or its Pakistani variant, the Shaheen-III. If the Chinese stand in the way of arming the DF-21s with nuclear weapons, Pakistan could provide the Shaheen-III over time to be comingled with the Chinese IRBMs. Alternatively, the Shaheen-III could be deployed in a new series of launch sites out of sight of Chinese technical advisors. It is, in fact, technically more plausible that the Pakistanis would mate their nuclear warheads to their missiles rather than try to modify a similar but distinct Chinese missile. In either case, the outside world could be led to believe that the RSSRF only operates precision-guided, non-nuclear armed, long-range missiles. The increased military effectiveness of using precision-guided warheads would be part of a public cover story that the Saudi regime had no interest in a nuclear arsenal.
With the delivery vehicles in place, several nuclear warheads could be delivered overnight via a handful of large jet cargo planes owned and operated by the Pakistani government. The new Saudi nuclear arsenal could be made combat-ready or, at least, appear to be combat-ready, in a matter of hours, thereby presenting the major military powers of the globe—particularly the United States, Israel and India—with a strategic fait accompli. To be sure, the operational effectiveness and technical prowess of Saudi Arabia’s new nuclear arsenal might be questioned, but the brandishing of nuclear weapons has more often been a matter of symbolic and threatening posturing rather than technically-solid positioning.
Having cast the die with this flagrant act of nuclear proliferation, the Saudi regime would be free to double down and announce that it will negotiate a new and more robust economic and military alliance with Pakistan. This could include providing oil at discounted “friendship” prices and receiving a wave of Pakistani military “advisors”—including elite special forces to act as MbS’ own Praetorian guard. Pakistan could also promise to sell to Saudi Arabia a range of guided weapons, including long-range air/sea/ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles.
THE NUCLEAR proliferation scenario described above is a nightmare for those in the U.S. government and international community who are struggling to sustain the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has already been greatly weakened by the apparent inability of the United States (despite negotiations and threats) to affect the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea.
Although there would be a global furor over these events in the Middle East, the negative consequences for Saudi Arabia—especially for MbS, his foreign allies and his energy clients—might be muted. The rapid acquisition of an operational nuclear force by Saudi Arabia might be rationalized by much of the international community rather quickly. After all, this was the international response after the 1998 nuclear weapon tests by Pakistan and India. Initially, the United States led a campaign to punish both Pakistan and India, but that faded due to “reasons of state”—i.e., higher national interests. Washington perceived it had more important geostrategic equities with both countries, with Pakistan being a key player in the emerging conflict with global Islamic terrorism, and India being an emerging power and, more recently, an emerging center of gravity against a rising China. In the current context, Saudi Arabia would continue to rely on its role as the leader of OPEC and as the key swing producer of petroleum to dampen any punitive international response.
Even if it fielded a nuclear arsenal, both China and India would remain significant clients for Saudi petroleum products. Russia might privately be upset about the geostrategic implications of this Saudi “move of greatness,” but Moscow would want to continue its partnership with Riyadh and their joint efforts to manage the global price of oil in the face of the unconventional hydrocarbon supply-side revolution that originated from North America.
As for the United States, the response would likely be relatively muted. After all, the Trump administration has made a major strategic investment in the MbS regime as part of its broader desire to cripple Iran’s geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East. President Trump himself has taken a more relaxed view about the geostrategic consequence of a significant ally acquiring nuclear weapons—see no further than his public comments about Japan and South Korea acquiring such nuclear capabilities. A similarly tempered response may well emerge from Israel, especially if Washington gives Riyadh a “pass” on this decision. Yet, Riyadh could face a U.S. Congress that would attempt to impose a wide range of military and economic sanctions. Just earlier this year though, President Trump vetoed Congress’ attempt to block arms sales to the Saudis. How much Congress can actually achieve against Saudi Arabia then is an open question.
As for Iran, the Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons may provide a political green light for Tehran to overtly and rapidly abandon the JCPOA. Aside from publicly and loudly decrying Riyadh for its unilateral decision to pursue a nuclear arsenal, the Iranian government would likely respond cautiously and wait to see how the great powers respond to this unexpected turn of events. Thereafter, Tehran might opt for a strategy of “lying low” under the geopolitical radar, continuing development of its own nuclear program while the rest of the world voices consternation over Saudi Arabia’s sudden lunge for the bomb. This approach would net Iran with several geostrategic and economic benefits, including continued fruitful financial and energy relations with the EU, Russia, China and India, even in the face of counter pressures from the United States.
In short, Saudi Arabia’s strong ties to the world’s major powers, along with its importance in the world’s oil markets, would likely spare it and its leadership from facing severe repercussions. Pakistan though might not be so fortunate. To be sure, Islamabad would stand to make some gains: a major financial windfall from its sale of nuclear weapons and the acquisition of a rich and strategically dependable ally that could provide Pakistan with an unprecedented degree of geostrategic and geo-economic autonomy. In the short term, however, the decision to supply Saudi Arabia with a nuclear arsenal would be far more fraught for Islamabad than for Riyadh.
Pakistan’s key regional ally, China, would likely be unhappy about this turn of events, but may eventually conclude that its geostrategic and geo-economic interests in Pakistan are just too great to be put at risk by a harsh diplomatic and/or economic response. On the other hand, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel would likely not take well to a clandestine nuclear weapon transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia—especially if the plot is unraveled before the transfer is completed. The most dramatic response, in that case, would be a possible military interdiction. A less dramatic but more likely response would occur after the fact, with Washington deciding to raise the ante with Islamabad by asserting that this act of nuclear proliferation strikes against the vital interests of the United States. The United States could retaliate in a variety of ways, from cutting off aid to providing intelligence support to any punitive Indian military campaign. Less extreme options are plausible.
Overall, it is Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia, that is the weak link in this possible nuclear weapon proliferation conspiracy.
TO PULL off this bold nuclear maneuver, MbS would have to rely on secrecy and speed. There are multiple ways such a conspiracy of rapid nuclear proliferation could be detected by the intelligence communities of the United States, Israel, China, India and the EU. The world’s media outfits, ranging from traditional journalists to technically-competent operations such as Bellingcat, could acquire and release compromising information. Would both parties of this nuclear weapon transaction be warned off? By whom and by what threats or reassurances?
But if Riyadh and Islamabad managed to avoid discovery and were able to complete this hypothetical nuclear transaction, then they would deliver a major shock to the international security system.
Could the United States face a situation like the one above in the Middle East in the not-too-distant future? Although the scenario I have outlined is of low probability, its possibility is forecastable. The real question on the table is how seriously Washington should take this scenario and what actions should be taken to diminish the likelihood of it occurring. Failing that, Washington should be prepared to consider how it can take advantage of—or at least mitigate—the consequences of this potential crisis, should it arise.
Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and regularly conducts lectures on national security policy at the Eisenhower School, National Defense University.