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Nuclear Last updated: February, 2013

There is no publicly available evidence that Saudi Arabia intends to develop nuclear weapons, nor that the Saudis have sought to develop such weapons in the past. However, the kingdom has been periodically suspected of seeking nuclear armaments, mostly based on statements made by Mohammed Khilewi. A former Saudi diplomat, Khilewi has declared that Saudi Arabia started a nuclear weapons program in 1975; he also alleged that Saudi Arabia supported both the Pakistani and Iraqi nuclear weapons programs in the past. However, Saudi Arabia is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and vocally supports the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is threatened by the nuclear activities in Iran and Israel, but has not demonstrated an intention to develop nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it lacks the physical and scientific resources necessary to build an advanced nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia engages in some domestic research related to nuclear energy, and is a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to develop a multilateral nuclear power program.

History

Media reports alleging that Saudi Arabia once tried to develop nuclear weapons are generally based on allegations made by Mohammed Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat who worked on nonproliferation issues at the Saudi mission to the United Nations in New York. After Khilewi defected to the United States in 1994, he provided the U.S. government and media sources with accounts and documents alleging that Saudi Arabia had started a nuclear weapons research program in 1975. According to the former diplomat, the Saudis were motivated to start a weapons program soon after Israel won the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Reportedly, the Saudis hoped that by building a nuclear weapon they could match Israeli capabilities and stave off potential aggression from Israel.

[1] This early program was apparently under the command of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, the Saudi Minister of Defense, and was run from the Al-Khari nuclear research center, at a military base south of Riyadh.[2] As part of their efforts, Saudi scientists allegedly received training on how to build weapons in Iraq and Pakistan, and worked to amass a "nuclear library" with detailed scientific literature on the nuclear weapons programs of other countries.[3] Khilewi also contended that Saudi officials attempted to buy a miniature neutron source nuclear reactor from China in 1989, although the deal was not finalized.[4]

Saudi Arabia is also alleged to have provided funding for nuclear weapons programs in Iraq and Pakistan. According to Khilewi's account, Saudi Arabia gave $5 billion to the Iraqi nuclear research program between 1985 and the start of the first Gulf war. [5] This funding was provided as part of a broader Saudi effort to aid Iraq in its war against Iran.[6] Khilewi maintained that the Saudi funds were provided with the understanding that Saudi Arabia would gain control of several Iraqi nuclear weapons if the armaments were ever built.[7] It is also rumored that Saudi Arabia gave financial support to Pakistani's nuclear weapons program, while the program was in beginning around 1975, since Riyadh viewed the Pakistani "Islamic bomb" as something that would contribute to Saudi Arabia's own security.[8] Robert Baer, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst, confirmed that Saudi Arabia spent $2 billion dollars helping Pakistan develop an "Islamic bomb" in the 1970s and 1980s.[9] This assistance is rumored to have continued even after 1998, when Pakistan first tested its nuclear weapons. For instance, Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Minister of Defense, allegedly traveled to two facilities related to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program - a missile assembly plant and uranium enrichment facility - during a visit to Pakistan in 1999.[10] Similar allegations of Saudi-Pakistani nuclear relations surfaced in media reports in 2003 and 2006.[11] However, as analyst Sammy Salama has pointed out, these allegations are fueled by visits between defense officials in the two countries, and remain unsubstantiated through publicly available evidence.[12]

Saudi Arabia signed the NPT in 1988. This occurred shortly after the government bought approximately 36 CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China. At the time, Western officials worried that Saudi Arabia would use the missiles to deliver unconventional warheads. Thus, nonproliferation experts have argued that Saudi Arabia was compelled to join the NPT after being pressured by the United States. Beyond joining the NPT, Saudi diplomats have supported the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East since 1999.[13] Saudi officials cite Israel, an unofficial nuclear weapons state outside of the NPT regime, as the main impediment to the establishment of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.[14] Saudi officials are also wary of Tehran's expanded nuclear activities, and have chastised Iran for its nuclear efforts. However, Saudi officials have expressed reluctance to confront Iran over its nuclear program.[15]

Saudi Arabia has historically pursued the development of civilian nuclear energy for scientific and commercial purposes. Its national Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) was established in 1988, and aims to "adapt the nuclear sciences and technologies and utilize them in support of the economic, industrial, and agricultural plans of the Kingdom."[16] Since the 1970s, Saudi scientists have also expressed interest in using nuclear power to desalinate drinking water.[17] Since Saudi Arabia desalinates 70% of its drinking water,[18] and nuclear-powered desalination plants are cheaper to run than plants powered by fossil fuels,[19] using nuclear energy to power desalination plants is attractive in Saudi Arabia.

Current Status

No convincing evidence exists to prove that Saudi Arabia is attempting to develop, or has the motivation to develop, a nuclear weapons program. Recent media allegations asserting Saudi interest in nuclear weapons stem from a 2003 article printed in The Guardian, a British newspaper, which stated that the Saudi government had published a military strategy paper advocating the procurement of nuclear weapons. According to the article, Saudi defense officials supported the acquisition of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes, to secure security guarantees from its great power allies, and as a bargaining chip to press for the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East.[20] The existence of such a strategy paper has not been corroborated by any official sources. After the article was published in The Guardian, the Saudi government denied that such a report had been written, and reconfirmed its support for a Middle East NWFZ.[21]

Saudi Arabia signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 2005, but the agreement has not entered into force.[22] Riyadh added an IAEA Small Quantities Protocol to its safeguards agreement. Countries that do not possess large quantities of nuclear materials, and do not possess nuclear materials in nuclear facilities, can annex such a measure to their safeguards agreement. States that conclude a small quantities protocol include information regarding their nuclear activities in the safeguards agreement. In exchange for this initial declaration, the country is exempted from regular IAEA inspections. This limits the IAEA's ability to verify that Saudi Arabia's nuclear activities are limited and non-military in nature.

Analysts generally conclude that Saudi Arabia lacks the natural resources, technological capability, and scientific community necessary to develop an advanced nuclear weapons program.[23] Saudi scientists do not have experience in many integral facets of the nuclear fuel cycle that must be mastered to develop nuclear weapons. For example, Saudi Arabia does not have uranium deposits on its territory, so it lacks experience in uranium mining. Since the country does not have nuclear power facilities, its scientists also lack experience in enriching uranium for reactor fuel, nuclear fuel conversion, nuclear fuel fabrication, and operating nuclear reactors.[24] Saudi Arabia does not operate any research reactors. However, Saudi scientists do have some experience with scientific experiments involving nuclear energy such as work on the production of uranium isotopes and managing spent fuel.[25] Saudi Arabia does operate a Tandetron accelerator, used in nuclear physics experiments, at the King Fadh University of Petroleum and Minerals, and a cyclotron, used for the production of medial isotope, at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. These activities could give Saudi Arabia experience in nuclear energy issues, although they would not directly train Saudi scientists to design and build nuclear weapons.

Some experts worry that Saudi Arabia could overcome its domestic resource inadequacies by developing nuclear weapons with outside assistance - perhaps from Pakistan. This could include securing a foreign source of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, gaining training from Pakistani nuclear scientists, or even jointly developing weapons with Pakistan.[26] The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is thought to possess enough funds to carry out such a project. However, although this cooperation is possible and has been the source of periodic rumors in the international media, it is not probable. Saudi leaders would be reticent to invite the degree of international isolation - and harm to U.S.-Saudi relations - that would result from such an act.[27]

Saudi Arabia is involved in the recent Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Announced in December 2006, the program remains in the early planning stages, as the GCC members have commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of developing a joint nuclear energy program. IAEA officials have been involved with the feasibility study, and GCC members would like the agency to have continued involvement in and regulation over the project.[28] Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute has argued that the recent surge in interest regarding the development nuclear energy in the Middle East represents a reaction by the countries involved to Iran's development of a nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment and questionable activities that could be related to a weapons program.[29] Yet Saudi Arabian officials have stressed that the GCC project would be designed exclusively for peaceful purposes, would be fully transparent, and would be under IAEA safeguards.[30] After the GCC program was announced, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, told reporters, "We want no bombs....Our policy is to have a region free of nuclear weapons."[31] As of mid-2008, Saudi Arabia has not taken concrete steps towards the domestic development of nuclear power at this time. However, in May 2008, the United States and Saudi Arabia did sign a Memorandum of Understanding on civil nuclear energy cooperation.[32] France has also discussed the development of a civil nuclear energy program in Saudi Arabia.[33]

Resources

  • "Saudi Arabia Special Weapons," GlobalSecurity, www.globalsecurity.org.
  • "Saudi Arabia Country Profile," SIPRI, July 2004. www.sipri.org.
  • "Nuclear Energy Handbook: Saudi Arabia," IAEA, www.iaea.org.


Sources:
[1] Marie Colvin, "How an Insider Lifted the Veil on Saudi Plot for an 'Islamic Bomb,'" Sunday Times (London), July 24, 1994, LexisNexis.
[2] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[3] Marie Colvin, "How an Insider Lifted the Veil on Saudi Plot for an 'Islamic Bomb,'" Sunday Times (London), July 24, 1994, LexisNexis.
[4] Marie Colvin and Peter Sawyer, "Saudis Bargained with Chinese for Nuclear Reactors," Sunday Times (London), August 7, 1994, LexisNexis.
[5] Marie Colvin and Peter Sawyer, "Saudis Bargained with Chinese for Nuclear Reactors," Sunday Times (London), August 7, 1994, LexisNexis.
[6] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[7] Marie Colvin and Peter Sawyer, "Saudis Bargained with Chinese for Nuclear Reactors," Sunday Times (London), August 7, 1994, LexisNexis.
[8] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[9] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[10] Arnaud de Borchgrave, "Pakistan, Saudi Arabia in Secret Nuke Pact," Washington Times, October 22, 2003. Originally cited in Sammy Salama, "Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Working on 'Secret Nuclear Program' with Pakistani Assistance," WMD Insights, May 2006, www.wmdinsights.com.
[11] See Sammy Salama, "Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Working on 'Secret Nuclear Program' with Pakistani Assistance," WMD Insights, May 2006, www.wmdinsights.com.
[12] Sammy Salama, "Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Working on 'Secret Nuclear Program' with Pakistani Assistance," WMD Insights, May 2006, www.wmdinsights.com.
[13] Akaki Dvali, "Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?" NTI Issue Brief, March 2004, www.nti.org.
[14] Thomas Lippman, "Saudi Arabia: The Calculations of Uncertainty," The Nuclear Tipping Point, Eds. Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, Mitchell Reiss (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 117.
[15] Tariq Khaitous, "Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Policies toward Iran's Nuclear Program," NTI Issue Brief, December 2007, www.nti.org.
[16] Thomas Lippman, "Saudi Arabia: The Calculations of Uncertainty," The Nuclear Tipping Point, Eds. Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, Mitchell Reiss (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 117.
[17] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[18] "Shoaiba Desalination Plant, Saudi Arabia," WaterTechnology, www.water-technology.net.
[19] Jeffrey Fields, "Country Profile 9: Syria," SIPRI, January 2006, www.sipri.org.
[20] See Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor, "Saudis Consider Nuclear Bomb," Guardian (London), September 18, 2003, www.guardian.co.uk.
[21] Akaki Dvali, "Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons?" NTI Issue Brief, March 2004, www.nti.org.
[22] "NPT Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement: Overview of Status," International Atomic Energy Agency, Current Status as of May 30, 2008, www.iaea.org.
[23] "Saudi Arabia Country Profile: Nuclear Facilities Profiles," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org; Lippman 2008.
[24] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[25] Yana Feldman and Beth Nikitin, "Verifying Small Quantities: Saudi Arabia's SQP," Trust & Verify, Verification Research, Training and Information Center, July-September 2005, www.vertic.org.
[26] Yana Feldman, "Country Profile 8: Saudi Arabia," SIPRI, July 2004, www.sipri.org.
[27] Sammy Salama, "Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Working on 'Secret Nuclear Program' with Pakistani Assistance," WMD Insights, May 2006, www.wmdinsights.com; Thomas Lippman, "Saudi Arabia: The Calculations of Uncertainty," The Nuclear Tipping Point, Eds. Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, Mitchell Reiss (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 117.
[28] Richard Weitz, "Gulf Cooperation Council Moves Forward with Nuclear Energy Plans," WMD Insights, April 2007, www.wmdinsights.com.
[29] Richard Weitz, "Gulf Cooperation Council Moves Forward with Nuclear Energy Plans," WMD Insights, April 2007, www.wmdinsights.com.
[30] Richard Weitz, "Gulf Cooperation Council Moves Forward with Nuclear Energy Plans," WMD Insights, April 2007, www.wmdinsights.com.
[31] Quoted in Raid Quati, "GCC to Develop Civilian Nuclear Energy," Arab News, December 11, 2006, www.arabnews.com.
[32] "U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation," U.S. State Department website, May 16, 2008, www.state.gov.
[33] Laurent Pirot. "French Offer Saudi Nuclear Energy Help." ABC News, January 13, 2008, abcnews.go.com.

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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