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Saudi Arabia flagSaudi Arabia

Overview Last updated: April, 2015

Saudi Arabia does not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and is a party to the major nonproliferation treaties and agreements. Saudi Arabia possesses approximately 36 Dongfeng-3(NATO: CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering unconventional warheads, although Riyadh has publicly declared that it will only pair these missiles with conventional payloads. [1]

Nuclear

Saudi Arabia is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The country currently has extremely limited nuclear capabilities. Because Saudi Arabia lacks meaningful quantities of nuclear materials and does not possess even a research reactor, it negotiated a Small Quantities Protocol with the IAEA. SQPs limit the declarations and inspections requirements of countries with small nuclear programs. [2] Riyadh has consistently supported the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. [3] Saudi Arabia reaffirmed its support for a zone in an official statement at the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. [4] Additionally, Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal cited the United Nations Security Council's "ongoing failure" to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East as one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia rejected a two-year seat on the Security Council in 2013. [5]

Reports concerning possible Saudi intent to obtain nuclear weapons occasionally surface, often in the context of a latent Iranian nuclear threat. For example, Prince Turki al-Faisal has expressed that Saudi Arabia should be capable of equal nuclear "know-how" with Iran and would seek foreign assistance to have its own nuclear weapons in the event of Iranian possession of nuclear weapons. [6] There has been media speculation concerning possible Saudi- Pakistani nuclear cooperation. However, available open source information cannot substantiate these allegations. [7] Saudi Arabia lacks the domestic infrastructure and expertise necessary to developing nuclear weapons, and would therefore require extensive foreign assistance. [8]

Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in pursuing a civilian nuclear program. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated in December 2006 that Saudi Arabia aims to obtain nuclear technology "for peaceful purposes, no more no less," and reaffirmed that it was Saudi policy "to have a region free from weapons of mass destruction." [9]

In 1994, Saudi diplomat Mohammed Khilewi defected to the United States and claimed that the Kingdom had actively pursued a nuclear weapons option through state proxies since 1975. [10] Khilewi alleged that Riyadh had sought a nuclear reactor from China, and funded Iraq's and Pakistan's nuclear programs. [11] In a 2004 book chapter on Saudi Arabia, journalist Thomas Lippman, citing an interview with Robert Pelletreau, a U.S. State Department official at the time of Khilewi's defection, stated that the United States "found nothing in Khilewi's debriefings to back up the media reports about a Saudi nuclear program." [12] Despite the unsubstantiated nature of Khilewi's allegations, the media has updated and reported on the story multiple times over the past two decades.

On November 6, 2013, BBC Newsnight reported that several high-level individuals had provided information confirming Saudi Arabia's role as a financier for the Pakistani bomb, and argued that Saudi Arabia believes it has an agreement with Pakistan either for access to nuclear weapons or Pakistani nuclear umbrella deployments in the case of a crisis. [13] The article quotes an unnamed senior Pakistani official as stating that Saudi funding "wasn't charity," implying instead that it was payment for either nuclear weapons or support. [14] Both Pakistani and Saudi officials denied these allegations. [15] Scholars noted that it was possible that the Saudis believed such an agreement was in place, but that the latter most likely did not have a written commitment from Pakistan, and that it was unlikely Pakistan would honor a request for nuclear weapons. [16]

After announcing plans to have 16 nuclear power reactors over the span of 20 years, Saudi Arabia has recently received foreign assistance to develop its nuclear infrastructure. [17] In early 2014, French companies Areva and EDF signed agreements with four Saudi universities to help develop nuclear expertise, including a nuclear safety training program at the National Institute of Technology in Jeddah. [18] Saudi Arabia's current infrastructure is solely made up of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), with plans to establish a Saudi Arabian Atomic Regulatory Authority (SAARA). [19] KACARE is an independent organization established by Royal Order in April 2010 for the research and development of Saudi Arabia's atomic and renewable energy program. [20] In May 2014, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) also agreed to train personnel and help establish a nuclear regulatory framework in Saudi Arabia. [21]

Biological and Chemical

There is no evidence that Saudi Arabia possesses either a chemical or biological weapons program, or that Saudi Arabia intends to develop such weapons. [22] Saudi Arabia is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [23] A 2005 domestic law bans the production, possession, and storage of both chemical and biological weapons within Saudi Arabia, and declares that any individuals found to be in noncompliance will face a fine of one million Riyals and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. [24]

Missile

Saudi Arabia does not have the capability to develop ballistic missiles domestically. Saudi Arabia procured approximately 36 Dongfeng-3 (DF-3; NATO: CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China in 1987. [25] A Committee on Governmental Affairs report to the U.S. Senate states that Saudi Arabia joined the NPT in 1988 in part to assuage serious U.S. concerns that the ballistic missiles would be used to deliver future nuclear warheads. [26] Western officials worried about the missiles because they would be best suited for unconventional warheads; their poor accuracy would not make them useful for delivering conventional warheads to military targets. [27] The Saudi purchase, however, came at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), in which Iraq used inaccurate ballistic missiles to attack Iranian cities. [28] As such, there was a credible conventional rationale behind Saudi Arabia's acquisition of such weapons. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia may have obtained the DF-3 for reasons of prestige and diplomatic signaling. [29] Saudi Arabia currently deploys the DF-3 with conventional warheads, and has pledged that it will not couple the missiles with unconventional payloads. [30] Saudi Arabia has never tested the DF-3, and it is unclear whether the missiles have been maintained or are an active component in Saudi defense strategy. [31]

Citing a U.S. intelligence source in January 2014, Newsweek reported that Saudi Arabia purchased Dongfeng-21 (DF-21; NATO: CSS-5s) ballistic missiles from China in 2007. [32] Saudi Arabia allegedly sought U.S. approval of the deal, which it eventually received after the CIA verified the DF-21 design would be incompatible for nuclear warheads. [33] This purchase is regarded as a replacement or update of Saudi's DF-3 missile purchase in 1987; although the DF-21 has a shorter range, it is more accurate than the DF-3. [34] Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies predicts the missile buy will have no major strategic impact on the region, but "assesses that Saudi Arabia could modify the ballistic missile frame to carry a nuclear warhead." [35]

Sources
[1] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[2] "Saudi Arabia Signs Small Quantities Protocol," Global Security Newswire, June 16, 2005, www.nti.org.
[3] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Status of the Treaty," www.un.org; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Status List: Conclusion of Safeguards Agreements, Additional Protocols and Small Quantities Protocols," September 24, 2013, www.iaea.org. For a pre-2005 signature discussion of Saudi intentions and diplomatic signaling, see: Thomas W. Lippman, "Saudi Arabia: The Calculations of Uncertainty," The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices, Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, Mitchell B. Reiss, eds., (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2004), 111.
[4] H. E. Ambassador Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, "Statement of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Before the First Committee on Nuclear Disarmament and International Security," 68th Session of the UNGA-2013, p.3, www.un.org.
[5] "Statement for BBC2 Newsnight from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, London," Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in United Kingdom, November 6, 2013, http://embassies.mofa.gov.sa.
[6] Karl Vick, "Saudis Show Off a Missile as Tensions with Iran Rise," TIME, May 1, 2014; Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan, BBC News, November 6, 2013.
[7] The latest allegations were presented in: Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk. Also see the denials by high level Pakistani officials, scholars, and even A. Q. Khan, presented in: Rob Crilly, "Pakistan 'Ready to Deliver Nuclear Weapons to Saudi Arabia'," The Telegraph, November 7, 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk.
[8] James A. Russell, "Nuclear Proliferation and the Middle East's Security Dilemma: The Case of Saudi Arabia," Over the Horizon Proliferation Threats, James J. Writz, Peter R. Lavoy, eds., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 63.
[9] James A. Russell, "Nuclear Proliferation and the Middle East's Security Dilemma: The Case of Saudi Arabia," Over the Horizon Proliferation Threats, James J. Writz, Peter R. Lavoy, eds., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 48-49.
[10] Mohamed Al Khilewi: "Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Kill Me," Middle East Quarterly, (September 1998): p. 66-77, retrieved at: Middle East Forum, www.meforum.org.
[11] Kate Amlin, "Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?" Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 1, 2008, www.nti.org.
[12] Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, Mitchell Reiss, and Vartan Gregorian, "The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices," (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute Press, 2004) P. 121.
[13] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[14] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[15] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' from Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[16] Rob Crilly, "Pakistan 'Ready to Deliver Nuclear Weapons to Saudi Arabia'," The Telegraph, November 7, 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk.
[17] "Areva, EDF team up with Saudis," World Nuclear News, January 6, 2014; Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson, "Nuclear Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's Atomic Ambitions," Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Policy Brief, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 27, 2014; Sara Hamdan, "Demand Booms Among Saudis," The New York Times, June 17, 2014.
[18] "AREVA, EDF Sign Saudi Agreements," Contracts, Nuclear Energy Institute, January 1, 2014, www.nei.org.
[19] Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson, "Nuclear Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's Atomic Ambitions," Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Policy Brief, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 27, 2014; "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia," World Nuclear Association, May 2014, world-nuclear.org.
[20] King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, "Royal Decree establishing King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy," KACARE, http://www.kacare.gov.sa/en
[21] "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia," World Nuclear Association, May 2014, world-nuclear.org.
[22] Zygmunt F. Dembek, "The History and Threat of Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism," Hospital Preparation for Bioterror: A Medical and Biomedical Systems Approach, Joseph H. Mclsaac III, ed., (Burlington: Academic Press, 2006), p. 29.
[23] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "OPCW Member States," www.opcw.org.
[24] "Saudi Arabia: Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities and Programs," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, www.nonproliferation.org.
[25] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[26] Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, "The Proliferation Primer: a Majority Report to the Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services," 59. For the ratification date, see: United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," http://disarmament.un.org.
[27] Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States, "Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2009," A Report to Congress Pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2000, p. 24.
[28] Timothy D. Hyot, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution: The Role of the Periphery in Technological and Conceptual Innovation," The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas, Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 193-194.
[29] Timothy D. Hyot, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution: The Role of the Periphery in Technological and Conceptual Innovation," The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas, Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 193-194.
[30] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66; Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.
[31] Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.
[32] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, January 29, 2014; Jeffrey Lewis, "Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?" Foreign Policy, January 30, 2014.
[33] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, January 29, 2014.
[34] Jeff Stein, "The CIA Was Saudi Arabia's Personal Shopper," Newsweek, January 29, 2014; Ethan Meick, "China's Reported Ballistic Missile Sale to Saudi Arabia: Background and Potential Implications," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, June 16, 2014.
[35] Ethan Meick, "China's Reported Ballistic Missile Sale to Saudi Arabia: Background and Potential Implications,"U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, June 16, 2014; Jeffrey Lewis, "Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?" Foreign Policy, January 30, 2014.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Saudi Arabia

  • State party to the NPT, CWC and BTWC
  • Possesses 40 to 60 CSS-2 medium-range ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 2,650km
  • Has no nuclear research or power reactors