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Saudi Arabia flagSaudi Arabia

Overview Last updated: November, 2013

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 nuclear-weapon-free-zone (NWFZ) 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]

Reports surface occasionally concerning possible Saudi intent to obtain nuclear weapons, often in the context of a latent Iranian nuclear threat. Recently, speculation resurfaced in the media concerning possible Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation. However, available open source information cannot substantiate these allegations. [5] Saudi Arabia lacks the domestic infrastructure and expertise necessary to developing nuclear weapons, and would therefore require extensive foreign assistance. [6]

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." [7]

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. [8] Khilewi alleged that Riyadh had sought a nuclear reactor from China, and funded Iraq's and Pakistan's nuclear programs. [9] 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." [10] 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. [11] 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. [12] Both Pakistani and Saudi officials denied these allegations. [13] 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. [14]

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. [15] Saudi Arabia is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [16] 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. [17]

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. [18] 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. [19] 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. [20] 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. [21] 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. [22] Saudi Arabia currently deploys the DF-3 with conventional warheads, and has pledged that it will not couple the missiles with unconventional payloads. [23] 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. [24]

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] 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.
[6] 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.
[7] 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.
[8] 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.
[9] Kate Amlin, "Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?" Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 1, 2008, www.nti.org.
[10] 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.
[11] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' From Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[12] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' From Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[13] Mark Urban, "Saudi Nuclear Weapons 'On Order' From Pakistan," BBC News, November 6, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk.
[14] Rob Crilly, "Pakistan 'Ready to Deliver Nuclear Weapons to Saudi Arabia'," The Telegraph, November 7, 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk.
[15] 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.
[16] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "OPCW Member States," www.opcw.org.
[17] "Saudi Arabia: Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities and Programs," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, www.nonproliferation.org.
[18] Naser M. Al-tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 65-66.
[19] 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.
[20] 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.
[21] 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.
[22] 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.
[23] 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.
[24] Anthony H. Cordesman, Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom (Oxford: Westview Press, 1997), 179.

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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